Y Cyfarfod Llawn
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) in the Chair.
Good afternoon and welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and these are set out on your agenda.
I would remind all Members to ensure that their questions are succinct and within time, and for Ministers also to give succinct answers.
First this afternoon we have questions to the Minister for Social Justice, and the first question is from Mark Isherwood.
1. How is the Welsh Government tackling poverty in Wales? OQ57781
Our programme for government sets out clear ambitions to deliver a more prosperous and a more equal Wales and to create better outcomes for people. I am working with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that its commitments are shaped and delivered with addressing poverty and inequality as a central driver.
Diolch. As you will know, in December 2018, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation stated that, of the four countries of the UK, Wales has consistently had the highest poverty rate for the past 20 years. In November 2020, they said that even before coronavirus, almost a quarter of people in Wales were living in poverty. And last May, the UK End Child Poverty coalition stated that Wales had the worst child poverty rate of all UK nations. What consideration will you therefore give to last November's 'Poverty Trapped' report by John Penrose MP, which argues that Britain as a whole has failed to abolish poverty because of the focus on treating the symptoms rather than structural causes and that, quote:
'a better alternative is to improve opportunity for everyone, equipping them with the skills and attitudes to take the opportunities when they appear so you can have more control over your path in life.'
It is a report that has secured many heavyweight endorsements, including the professor of social mobility at Exeter University, who stated that,
'This is a serious report on a topic that should be a central motivation for anyone who goes into politics: how do we create a society in which all can pursue opportunity irrespective of their background?'
Thank you, Mark Isherwood. Well, you know that the key levers for tackling poverty are powers over the tax and welfare system that sit with the UK Government, but we're doing everything we can to reduce the impact of poverty and support those living in poverty. And you will be well aware of our winter fuel support scheme for 2022, offering a £200 payment, which supported families to cover their energy costs and keep their homes warm, and also of the cost-of-living summit that I chaired on 17 February, with a range of stakeholders for us to not just address the short, immediate crisis as a result of, particularly, cuts to welfare and increases in tax, as a result of your Government's actions, but to look at the way forward in terms of medium and longer term needs and policies to tackle poverty, and clearly looking at the findings of our child poverty review in considering them alongside evidence about what works, in tackling poverty, for Wales.
The major cause of poverty is low pay and irregular hours. Does the Minister agree with me that we need the cruel cut to universal credit reversed and an end to exploitative contracts—fire and rehire—and for everyone to be paid at least the real living wage?
Thank you very much, Mike Hedges. Last October, the UK Government's decision to end the £20 a week universal credit uplift payment condemned thousands of households across Wales to life on the poverty line. Also, with inflation forecast to hit 7 per cent, the motion to approve the uprating in welfare benefits payments from April by only 3.1 per cent was passed in the House of Commons, and, I have to say, with the full support of the Conservative MPs. But it is true what you say in terms of also ensuring that we work to improve levels of pay and deal with exploitative contracts. It is crucial that we are leading by example as a real-living-wage accredited employer, and also ensuring that, through our fair work and our social partnership, we're tackling those exploitative contracts as well.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government initiatives to assist households with ongoing increases in the cost of living? OQ57805
On 16 November, I announced a £51 million package of support for low-income households. Additionally, on 14 February, we announced a package of support worth more than £330 million, to fund a range of initiatives that will help Welsh households manage the cost-of-living crisis.
I'm grateful to you, Minister. I asked you about the cost of living; of course, what I should have asked you about was the Tory cost-of-living crisis. This isn't an accident, it isn't an act of God; it's the consequence of a deliberate policy to create more poverty amongst the most vulnerable in this country. We've had a decade of austerity, which failed to meet every objective set for it, and we now have a cost-of-living crisis made in Downing Street. We know that there's going to be a crisis for the most vulnerable, we know there are going to be increases, not just in the heating costs we're seeing at the moment, and the fuel costs we're seeing at the moment, but we also know there are going to be real increases in terms of food as we go through into the spring and the summer. Minister, can you continue to do the work that the Welsh Government is leading to provide support for and protection for the most vulnerable people, to continue to work to reverse the cuts in universal credit, and to ensure that family budgets and the most hard-pressed families in this country have the support that they need to get through these times?
Thank you very much, Alun Davies. And it is, indeed, as a result of a decade of austerity, made in Downing Street, that people, households are facing this cost-of-living crisis. It is a Tory cost-of-living crisis, and it's being fuelled by rising energy prices, but also, pressures on household budgets, changes to universal credit, mean that three-quarters of households on universal credit will be worse off in April than they were a year ago. People have lost more than £1,000 as a result, and, also, recipients who do not work at all will lose the entire COVID uplift, amounting to over £1,000 a year. So, it is important that we have our £330 million package of support to help households. But it isn't just in terms of tackling fuel poverty. I mentioned our winter fuel support, but we've got £1.1 million going to support and bolster food banks, community food partnerships, community hubs; £60,000 to continue to raise awareness of affordable credit, with our credit unions; £250,000 to pilot a public transport assistance scheme for asylum seekers; and £1.3 million—relevant to you, of course, Alun Davies—to make it easier for people in Valleys communities, and those without access to digital technology, to benefit from new and improved public transport. So, these are all ways in which the Welsh Government is responding to this Tory cost-of-living crisis.
The Older People's Commissioner for Wales, the chief executive of Age Cymru, the director of the Bevan Foundation, the director of Citizens Advice Cymru, the chief executive of Care and Repair Cymru, the head of National Energy Action Cymru, and the head of Oxfam Cymru have issued themselves a joint statement, highlighting that the eligibility for the winter fuel support scheme should be expanded to include older people claiming pension credit. Now, the Welsh Government's 2022-23 budget notes that the criteria will be widened to pensioners eligible for pension credit. Whilst I would be grateful if you could confirm that individuals claiming pension credit will become eligible from the start of the next financial year, Minister, would you please explain the rationale behind excluding them in this financial year and if any retrospective support can be provided to assist with their fuel poverty? It is not fair to lay this blame for the cost-of-living crisis at the door of the Conservatives in the UK Government. There are things that you can do in the Welsh Government, so why is that support not there for them for this year? Diolch.
Well, for the benefit, Janet Finch-Saunders, of those who have already benefited from our unique, bespoke winter fuel support scheme, it's really important to see the fact that that scheme has reached out, particularly reaching those households who are in receipt of working-age, means-tested benefits to help them with essential housing costs, and recognising that many of those were the ones who lost out on universal credit—that cut by your Tory Government. And it's very important to know that local authorities have recorded nearly 200,000 applications since the scheme opened at the end of December.
We will repeat this scheme. This is a Wales-only scheme. Actually, it's been recognised that we have been more generous than other parts of the UK. Clearly, nothing coming from the UK Government as far as this kind of support is concerned. So, at our cost-of-living summit, we did discuss this with partners. We did say that we would look to widen the eligibility, double the money to £200, and looking at particularly those households who have been made more vulnerable as a result of austerity, and as a result of the cut to universal credit, and the fact that, from April, not only in terms of rising fuel costs, rising inflation, but also that 3.1 per cent uplift on benefits—7 per cent in terms of inflation—. Where are those people on benefits going to turn? They'll have to turn to the Welsh Government, but they should be turning to the UK Government for a much better deal for those households.
I would like to endorse the comments made by Alun Davies and the Minister. Certainly, this is a political choice, and we can't avoid that fact, and you have to take responsibility if you make political decisions that do have an impact on the cost-of-living crisis.
Last month, I organised a cost-of-living summit in Treforest for my region, bringing third sector organisations and voluntary organisations together to discuss the challenges that we are seeing in our communities, and discuss how we can ensure that the support is available for those affected by the cost-of-living crisis. Whilst I'm grateful for the hard work of everyone who attended, in supporting individuals and families, they were all concerned that they, too, were under pressure in terms of meeting the demand. It is disgraceful that we are seeing more demand for food banks and that they are now seen as the norm within society rather than coming together to actually make them unnecessary. So, what support is being provided not only directly to homes, but also to the third sector and the voluntary sector in order to ensure that we can co-ordinate the support available, and to ensure that everyone who needs support receives the support that is available?
Diolch yn fawr, Heledd Fychan. And it is really welcome that you also held that local summit in terms of looking at the cost-of-living crisis. We had over 140 partners at the all-Wales summit, including the Welsh Local Government Association, who are critical at local authority level for co-ordinating, as well as the voluntary sector in terms of meeting that demand. I think we just have to say again that this is a cost-of-living crisis that has been created as a result of the policies of the UK Government, and we are offering that £200 household support. But, also, we are funding our third sector, and particularly important to your question is the support we're giving to the single advice fund, Citizens Advice, working alongside the Trussell Trust, the food banks, all of the compassionate, caring community groups in our areas who are working to address this crisis.
But I would say just one more thing. I'm sure that you would join us in saying that the Chancellor has got to do something in the spring statement to bring forward a budget that will actually show that the UK Government takes some responsibility for this cost-of-living crisis, in terms of tax and welfare. It's their responsibility, and we back those calls for a windfall tax on North sea oil and gas producers. That is a way that they could get the funding and to bring that funding to support those vulnerable households.
I do associate myself with the comments of Alun Davies and Heledd Fychan as well. And I'll keep saying, until the Welsh Conservatives might take the message back to their colleagues in Parliament, that they should reinstate the £20 universal credit cut. It is shameful—it is absolutely shameful that they are not doing that, and I really hope that they'll just pause and consider—[Interruption.]
I would like to hear the question from the Member, so please give her a chance to speak.
—pause and consider the effect that you're having on very poor families.
I'd like to raise the issue of those families that are affected by fuel increases, particularly those in rural regions, like myself, and I know my colleague Joyce Watson has raised this as well. Those that are off grid, reliant on solid fuel, oil and electric, face significant rises in their fuel and energy costs. In Mid and West Wales, 27 per cent of properties are actually off grid, with Powys and Ceredigion being amongst the highest. May I ask, Minister, what steps you might consider to support people in this situation and perhaps consider a one-off payment to those households affected? Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Jane Dodds. Of course, the cost-of-living crisis will see many more households struggling financially in Wales, including those in rural areas. We have focused our support, with the finance Minister, on those households that are most vulnerable and we've actually published analysis showing the distribution and effects of our immediate response, which I'm sure you will welcome, to see where we're targeting this effectively.
As well as the £150 cost-of-living payment for all households in properties in council tax bands A to D, and also the £200 payment, I will just say on the rural areas that, for off-grid homes, funding for the discretionary assistance fund is crucial. It was increased. We forwarded it to support the introduction of winter support for off-grid fuel clients. And, of course, we know in rural areas, in your areas, as you said, one in three households receive some or all of their energy supply from off-grid sources. So, reintroducing that, the final budget went through, further funding available to make sure that we reach this. And it is true that we need to reach those. And, just to give you some examples, we helped 494 applicants in Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Powys as a result of that bespoke discretionary assistance fund. So, it's the whole of Wales. The rural areas have particular issues in terms of off-grid fuel and energy sources, but we're responding to it through our discretionary assistance fund, which we've kept going and we've kept the flexibilities that were called for in the Equality and Social Justice Committee report, and that is going to make a difference.
I will now call the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson first of all. Mark Isherwood.
Diolch. As you know from correspondence, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in north Wales have expressed serious concern that local authority Gypsy/Traveller accommodation assessments have not engaged with them, and, therefore, fail to identify their accommodation needs. An advocate for them wrote to your department, stating that they're continuing to campaign for new sites, even if politicians of all parties and professional officers resolutely ignore them, and that the present law and guidance in Wales—Welsh Government law and guidance—does not ensure local authorities build new sites, residential or transit, or enable planning permission for private sites. In terms of your own responsibilities in Wales, your communities division's response only states, 'We strongly recommend local authorities to closely follow the guidance, along with any studies currently under way.' How do you, therefore, respond to the Gypsies in north Wales themselves who stated, 'Having meetings about sites without a Gypsy there is racism. Very shortly, we will have no transit sites in north Wales and south Wales. I feel we've been completely let down by people who I wanted to trust, and please tell them not to complain when the families who need transit and permanent sites, not included in council plans, pull up on fields et cetera'?
Thank you, Mark Isherwood, for very important questions in relation to the delivery of our commitments to Gypsy, Roma and Travellers to ensure that local authorities do fulfil their statutory duties to provide adequate and appropriate sites where there is need. And we recreated this duty—the Welsh Government and the Senedd here—to identify and meet the need for appropriate accommodation. That's within—and you were here—the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, and, in fact, we have seen well over 200 new pitches created or refurbished, mainly on smaller sites, and that is compared with what happened before that, which was just a handful, and we're also funding local authorities to build new pitches and refurbish many more.
It's crucial that Gypsy/Roma/Travellers are engaged in the process with their local authorities. It is a local authority responsibility and we're working with local authorities to identify and remove barriers to meeting needs. We fund Travelling Ahead, as you will be aware, of course, through TGP Cymru to deliver advice and advocacy to support Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and that funding is continuing as well. But it is true—I think, Mark, you're right—the fact that we now have a chance again to review, as a result of the accommodation assessments—the deadline's passed—for Gypsy and Travellers, and we need to look at this in terms of compliance, guidance, quality of engagement and calculation of needs.
You and I attended in 2005 the launch of the report on accommodation needs of Gypsies and Travellers in Llandrindod Wells, if I remember correctly, and the legislation followed. But the point here is that the members of the community themselves are saying that their voice has not been heard in the assessment that's been submitted to you, and therefore it doesn't reflect real need and sets up a time-bomb of issues for the future.
But, moving on, your equality and human rights responsibilities also include domestic abuse. Hourglass Cymru, the only charity in Wales solely focused on ending the harm and abuse of older people, has seen a 47 per cent increase in calls answered during the pandemic, with over 25 per cent coming outside normal business hours. A 2020 poll by Hourglass showed that there were over 443,000 older victims of abuse in Wales, and their freephone national helpline provides support and advice to these victims and anyone with concerns about the abuse and neglect of older people. And today, Hourglass Cymru have launched a 24/7 service supporting older people and their families, the first service of its kind in Wales with a specialism around elder abuse. The UK Home Office—
You need to ask the question now, please.
Okay. The UK Home Office have supported this service in England, and in Wales Hourglass is using its own reserves to fund the service. What consideration have you therefore given to ensuring the same level of specialist support for older people at risk, and will you meet with Hourglass Cymru to discuss this vital service and consider providing specialist support?
Thank you, Mark Isherwood. Well, I'm very happy to meet with Hourglass. But also, I've met with the Older People's Commissioner for Wales on this issue, who has herself, and with her team, done research and engaged with older people in terms of identifying elder abuse. This is crucial to the next phase of our VAWDASV strategy. We've consulted on it, we're developing the next five-year national strategy, we have key partner organisations, and I will shortly be responding to that. But, it is true that we have to look at this particularly in relation to the pandemic and the impact that lockdown and the pandemic had on older people as well. So, I'm grateful to you for bringing this to our attention this afternoon.
They'll be glad to hear your offer to meet because, as they say, elder abuse remains an under-supported and under-reported area.
My final question. Your equality and human rights responsibilities also include the issue of period poverty. Working with their active ambassadors, Grŵp Llandrillo Menai developed the 'It Won't Stop Us' campaign. In February 2019, prior to COVID lockdown and Government restrictions, they filmed and interviewed a range of athletes from across north Wales to share their experience of managing their menstruation whilst continuing to train, and as part of that the college want to promote the importance of maintaining physical activity to highlight the benefits of reducing the symptoms of menstruation and that periods should not act as a barrier to engaging in either learning or active well-being. They've also developed free complementary exercise resources that learners can do at home and tips on period hygiene and self-care. Well, as the Minister for Social Justice, therefore, what discussion are you having with the education Minister regarding Welsh Government plans to continue to support further education and work-based learning learners who have periods, including trans learners, over the longer term?
I made a statement, actually, a couple of weeks ago, as you'll recall, on period dignity, again highlighting the fact that we've prioritised this in our programme for government. We've got our strategic action plan on period dignity as a result of consultation, and I do chair a round-table with external stakeholders, including those from the education, school and colleges sector. And indeed, we have provided an additional £110,000 to local authorities this year, but that's over and above the £3.3 million to local authorities and colleges every year. What's crucial is the fact that learners are engaged in that round-table. We have ambassadors, and you will have met them, and the next meeting is considering the consultation response on 22 April.
On behalf of Plaid Cymru, Sioned Williams.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, 3 million refugees have now left Ukraine. The UK is requiring those refugees to apply for visas, and the UK Government has been resistant to the elimination of visa rules, although this contradicts our international obligations under the 1951 UN refugee convention, which stipulates that no-one fleeing war, no matter where they are from, should have to apply for a visa before seeking protection.
A group of refugees from Swansea, the second ever city of sanctuary in the UK, have written an open letter to the Government, calling out for more support for all people in extreme circumstances across the globe to have a safe way to get to the UK. Given the view on visas set out by the First Minister this week, contrary to the position of your Labour colleagues in Westminster, including senior Welsh Labour MPs, will you put on record today that the Welsh Government will keep pushing for the complete waiving of visa requirements for all refugees, in line with our aim of Wales becoming a supersponsor for those fleeing Ukraine and being a true nation of sanctuary?
Thank you very much. Diolch yn fawr, Sioned Williams. And of course I endorse the First Minister's commitment to this. We need to ensure that there are no barriers to supporting people fleeing the war in Ukraine. We want to provide that sanctuary and safety in Wales. We want them to come here. Any checks that need to be done can be done when they get here, so I completely endorse what the First Minister said. And he said it as the First Minister of Wales, responsible for the Welsh Government's policy as far as this is concerned, but this is not devolved in terms of these powers, so what is important is that the First Minister confirmed our intention to become a supersponsor for the UK Government's Homes for Ukraine scheme.
I've just issued an update today, following the First Minister's statement on Monday, and we are working with the UK Government to finalise those details to make sure that the first matches can be made under this scheme. We're working very closely with all our local authorities. They all met yesterday with our officials. Through third sector organisations, we're now developing links with Ukrainian networks and groups across the whole of Wales, and I'm grateful for the contacts that have been shared with me from across the Chamber. And, of course, this is where we have to, ourselves, be ready with the welcome centres, the wraparound services that people arriving from a war zone may need.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, and it's good to hear that progress is being made on our response to the UK sponsorship scheme, because that scheme for Ukrainian refugees is wholly inadequate. The system is too slow, it's inconsistent, and has kept Welsh local authorities in the dark. The leader of Gwynedd Council wrote yesterday to the Prime Minister, expressing deep concern as to what they have called the inadequate and inept response of the UK Government, and highlighting how they have expressed willingness to provide sanctuary for refugees and have accommodation available now, but have had no information as to the intentions of the UK Government.
The Welsh Government's announcement about becoming a supersponsor for Ukrainian refugees is very welcome, so can you provide more information about this proposal and how you intend to work with local authorities to create a holistic and robust structure of support? I understand the UK Government have agreed to provide £10,000 for local authorities for an individual, however there is no support for charity organisations. So, what resources do you think will be available from Welsh Government for local authorities, and will any funding be available to third sector organisations to provide crucial specialist support to arrivals?
Well thank you very much again for that follow-up question. We actually have worked with the Scottish Government, as you will be aware, so that the First Minister of Scotland and that of Wales, Mark Drakeford, raised this proposal for us to become supersponsors, actually based on our experience, our commitment as a nation of sanctuary, our experience as a result of the Afghan evacuation, but also for years before that, decades of our welcome to Wales, because we work as a team. Indeed, we met with all Welsh local government leaders, myself and the Minister for Finance and Local Government, as soon as we could. I will also say that, as well as the leader of Gwynedd Council raising his concerns, Councillor Andrew Morgan, the leader of the Welsh Local Government Association, also wrote immediately as things started to move, concerned about the barriers with visas. So, he wrote on behalf of the whole of the Welsh Local Government Association as well. All of the chief executives met with our officials yesterday, and we will take this forward.
We did have, as I think the First Minister reported yesterday, a letter back from Michael Gove to him and Nicola Sturgeon recognising that we would play the supersponsor role, and also giving us some more details. I'm going to be updating you probably on a daily basis, and also with those authorities. For example, they've agreed to a tariff similar to that allocated for the Afghan resettlement scheme—£10,500 per beneficiary person. For individual sponsors, we've heard, obviously, of the £350 per month, thank you, and also a tariff for education costs as well, varying depending on the age group, and primary/secondary as well. So, there's quite a lot of detail coming through. We are working, as I said, with our colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure that, through the supersponsor route, we can provide a clear and supportive route for people to join us.
On the third sector, we're also going to be developing a 'welcome to Wales' fund that we can contribute to as a Government, but also we have got an infrastructure of third sector organisations. We've met with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, but every authority also works very closely with their councils for voluntary service as well. But, there are many charitable trusts in Wales that want to contribute, so we will be able to then provide a fund for—. This is all being developed, so I'm speaking as we are working on this, but it will be for the voluntary groups, the community groups, the links that are being provided. So, at every level, the team Wales approach, the supersponsor route for refugees from Ukraine will be there, and I hope all colleagues will see today my latest statement giving you an update, and we will continue to do so over the coming days.
3. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on children? OQ57787
Recent analysis by organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Bevan Foundation and Children in Wales has found that households with children are amongst the hardest hit by the cost-of-living crisis. Lone parents and their children have been particularly affected.
Thank you, Minister. One in three children in Wales is living in poverty, and almost four in 10 homes do not have enough money to buy anything beyond the essentials. And anti-poverty groups say that these levels of poverty will deteriorate as the cost-of-living crisis worsens. As the budgets of too many families are under pressure, it's more important than ever before that every primary school child has a free breakfast. Starting the school day with food in their bellies is vital for education and their well-being, but according to figures by the Child Poverty Action Group and Parentkind, one in seven families on low incomes in Wales can access free breakfasts for their children, either because their primary school doesn't provide a breakfast club, or because there isn't enough space for their children. With arrangements being made to provide free school lunches to every child as a result of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru in primary schools, will the Government also commit to working with schools to overcome any barriers and to provide funding and additional support to them to ensure that free breakfast clubs are available to every child? Thank you.
Diolch yn fawr. That's also a very important question, because the delivery of free school breakfasts was a proud day when we announced that so many years back now, and it was a free school breakfast scheme that was to be available in every school in Wales. I am aware of some schools that had already got their own schemes. Obviously, that has to be organised between local authorities and schools, but I will ask the education Minister to review the present take-up and availability of free school breakfasts, because my understanding is that it is very robust, and I can feed back on that. But I think it is important to recognise that that free school breakfast is the crucial free and nutritious start to the day. But can I also say that the importance of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru to extend free school meals to all primary school pupils over the lifetime of the agreement is crucial to your question about how can we actually help our children and young people and households who are most vulnerable, how can we ensure that we provide a shield and support as a result of the cost of living crisis on children? We are looking at the findings of our child poverty review, and looking at ways in which we can specifically target those children and families who are most at risk. We know that they are lone parents, particularly, and we know that there are other ways in which we can support, through the school holiday enrichment programme, targeting support for children, not just in terms of free school meals, but also other initiatives to help those families.
Thank you, Minister for your answers so far. I would like to warmly welcome the extra £100 that is being awarded to every family that is entitled to the PDG access grant. That is very much welcomed by families in Cynon Valley and I'm sure across Wales this week. Can I ask, Minister, what is being done to raise awareness of that extra fund, and in particular to support families with language barriers or without access to ICT, because the application process for that is online?
Thank you, Vikki Howells. I'm really pleased that you have drawn attention to the latest announcement on 14 March by the Minister for Education and Welsh Language as regards the pupil development grant access grant, because this was part of our £330 million announcement. It will be raised, and I can share this now across the Chamber again, by £100 per learner—the Minister has made a statement about it—for those who are eligible for free school meals. It raises the funding for PDG access up to over £23 million for 2022-23. I know that our schools, particularly, are aware of the pressures on the families and households of their pupils. I know that local authorities as well, which responded to the cost-of-living crisis and attended our summit, will be ensuring that awareness is raised about eligibility for that funding. Can I say also, as part of the household support fund, that we put money into enabling schools to use extra funds to enable them to reach out, so that pupils will be able to take part in all activities—outings and schemes that might have required a personal family contribution? So, that's how we are seeking to support those children and families in need.
Minister, thanks to the pandemic and now Putin's illegal war in Ukraine, food and fuel prices are now rising at their highest rate since the second world war, forcing more families into poverty, which, as ever, has the biggest impact on children. Minister, much has been made of the support for families on benefits, but very little has been said about help for working families. What discussions have you had with Cabinet colleagues and the UK Government about the steps that you can take to help hard-pressed families? For example, have you discussed steps that you can take around childcare and minimising school disruptions, so that hard-working parents don't have to worry about taking unpaid leave to look after their children?
There seems to be a denial of the causes of the cost-of-living crisis affecting so many of our children and young people and households, as a result of the many points and questions and discussions that we have had this afternoon. I am very proud that we have the most generous childcare offer scheme in the UK, and it was extended last week by the Deputy Minister for Social Services, to reach out to parents who are in education and training. Also, I am delighted, and I'm sure that this went forward this morning—. I understand that, as a result of our co-operation agreement, there was the delivering of a phased expansion of early years provision announcement, as a result of the co-operation agreement. The flagship Flying Start programme is crucial for the phased expansion of early years provision to include all two-year-olds, with a particular emphasis on strengthening Welsh-medium provision. This is where we should be focusing our funding—to ensure that we do reach those children who will benefit from Flying Start, including the 9,000 two-year-olds who already receive high-quality childcare. The expansion will be with an intention to reach a further 2,500 children under the age of 4. These are families who need that free childcare and I'm delighted that the Deputy Minister announced that as a result of the co-operation agreement with Plaid Cymru. That extension now is going to make a difference to those families' lives.
4. Will the Minister provide an update on progress towards a Welsh welfare system? OQ57799
We are co-producing with stakeholders a charter that will underpin the delivery of a coherent and compassionate Welsh benefits system. However, the immediate focus is on ensuring our existing and new financial support payments reach households across Wales whose incomes are being stretched like never before.
I'm sure the Minister is aware of the work by the Bevan Foundation on the Welsh benefits system. Their analysis of the current situation is that although the Welsh Government has provided unprecedented levels of support, efforts are undermined by the complex way in which support is administered. The foundation suggests that a low-income family with two children would have to present nine different application forms. Creating a reformed system of grants provided by the Welsh Government, which would mean that you could apply for all the support that you're entitled to in one place, would improve families' access to support by making it more accessible. The past few months have shown how important it is now for us to make progress on this issue, so I ask the Minister to accelerate the Government's work in this area. We need a more co-ordinated system in place now that provides support for those that need it most as soon as possible.
Thank you very much, Luke Fletcher, for your very important question.
It's crucial that we get the funding, the benefits, to the households with the lowest incomes, and we need to move that forward, learning lessons and taking forward many of the recommendations, I would say, made by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee in the previous Senedd around benefit take-up. I have talked about the development of a charter for the Welsh benefit system, but also, going into the point of your question, to enable a more joined-up and simplified system so that more people can access their entitlements. We're now in discussion to ensure that we have a council tax protocol for local authorities, which is going to be crucial in terms of accessing those budgets with our charter. But I can assure you it's a top priority in terms of developing that social security system that we believe, in Wales, should be compassionate, fair in the way it treats people, and should be designed so it actually does make a positive contribution to tackling poverty. The current social security system in the UK falls far short on many counts.
5. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Ministry of Justice on the establishment of the first residential women’s centre in Wales? OQ57779
I recently met the Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice to discuss the residential women's centre in Wales. Work is progressing and Her Majesty's Prison and Probation Service Wales are working closely with Welsh Government, local authorities and other partners on this important initiative.
Diolch yn fawr, Weinidog. Data just released under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to Dr Robert Jones of the Wales Governance Centre showed that there has been an increase in the average number of Welsh women in prison between 2020 and 2021—gone up from 208 to 218. It also shows that women from north Wales are being held in the prison estate right across England, far away from their support network. Despite the announcement, nearly two years ago in early May 2020, of a residential centre in Wales, as far as I'm aware we still haven't got a site, we still haven't got an open date, and we still don't know what the legal status of that residential centre will be. In the meantime, Minister, as you well know, women are suffering in Wales, and this is not a good advertisement of partnership working between the Welsh Government and Ministry of Justice. We need to move on with this. When will the centre open, Minister? What will its status be? And how can we ensure that women across Wales, wherever they are from, will have equal status? Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch yn fawr, Rhys ab Owen. I'm as impatient as you, I can assure you. It is about partnership working with the UK Government, and the residential women's centre is going to be piloted in Wales. It's a key element of the female offending blueprint. As I said, I met with the Minister very recently. I hope we can have some news very shortly in terms of this centre, because it is crucial to tackle that injustice that women face in terms of the criminal justice system. I've visited women in English prisons. They shouldn't be there, they're separated from their families. They're often in prison because of poverty and abuse, and we want them to be supported in our women's residential centre in Wales, providing accommodation for up to 12 women to stay close to their homes and communities, and actually, then, tackle the causes, particularly relating to abuse and poverty, that meant that they were in the criminal justice system. I'm impatient, and I'm getting on with it.
6. What assessment has the Minister made of the UK Government's proposals to replace the Human Rights Act 1998? OQ57783
Following extensive engagement with stakeholders, our response to this consultation has been sent to the Ministry of Justice and published on our website. We've made it clear we are fundamentally opposed to the proposal to replace the current Human Rights Act with a bill of rights.
Minister, at First Minister's questions yesterday, I thanked the Welsh Government for its commitment to helping those fleeing the atrocities we're seeing in Ukraine and upholding our values that Wales is a nation of sanctuary. I stated that the kindness and generosity that we are seeing across our communities is the best of Wales, and that when people are experiencing such traumatic and devastating circumstances, we will do what we can to help them in their time of need.
I find it appalling, then, that in such a crisis, we are seeing the UK Government propose to reform the 1998 Human Rights Act and includes damaging consequences for people seeking refuge or asylum across the UK. Minister, recent events have highlighted that the consequences of war can affect any one of us and I'd remind the UK Government that damage to any group of people is a damage to all of our rights. Equality comes with no ifs and no buts. So, can the Minister therefore ensure that the Welsh Government is engaging with the UK Government to oppose any reform that will put the rights of people at risk?
I can assure the Member of that. We're calling—the Counsel General and myself; you'll see in our written statement—we're calling on the UK Government to change direction. It's still possible to do so, and the Ukrainian crisis shows it's even more important that they do so. They should abandon the current proposals, they should recommit, not just to retaining the existing Human Rights Act, but to guarantee full compliance by the UK with the obligations it's undertaken to fulfil in terms of the European convention on human rights and as a member of the Council of Europe, and we intend to have a debate on this as soon as we can, and I know colleagues will join us in supporting that intention in terms of our views.
7. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Education and Welsh Language about measures to support disabled students to access higher education? OQ57793
Eligible disabled students in Wales can access up to £31,831 of the non-repayable disabled students allowance grant to support them to access higher education. This amount is increasing to £32,546 for the academic year 2022/23.
Can I thank the Minister and can I welcome the steps that Welsh Government has taken to support disabled students to live independently whilst accessing higher education? But during a recent meeting with Citizens Advice Denbighshire, it was highlighted to me that new regulations introduced by the UK Government has made it harder for disabled students in non-advanced education to qualify for housing support through universal credit by getting rid of an exemption to the requirement to not be receiving education. And when the regulation was announced in December, Citizens Advice had to inform a client enrolled on a college course that they would be no longer able to live independently through universal credit if they wished to continue their college course. So, their options were either to withdraw from the course and live independently, or to stop living independently and continue the course, which is an awful choice to be faced with.
So, what conversations have you had with the Minister for education to investigate how the Welsh Government can support disabled people in non-advanced education to live independently through its competence over student finance, as it currently does for those in higher education? Thank you.
Thank you very much, Carolyn Thomas. Wales does provide the most generous non-repayable disabled student allowance grant support available in the UK, but you have drawn attention to an issue experienced by your constituent as a result of your consultation. We're keeping a watching brief on this in terms of these regulations, and we're also in touch with all the further education colleges' additional learning needs co-ordinators, so that they can be aware and know of the issues.
8. What policies is the Welsh Government following to support the most vulnerable through the cost-of-living crisis? OQ57801
We're supporting the most vulnerable people to maximise their income and build their financial resilience, and we recently announced a £330 million package of measures to help vulnerable people affected by the cost-of-living crisis.
Minister, as we know, the crisis is already with us, but, sadly, it's set to get considerably worse in terms of the cost of food, fuel, energy and much else besides. We know that specific steps have been taken by the Welsh Government to put schemes in place to help, and that's very welcome indeed, but, obviously, a lot of the responsibility lies with the UK Government and, for example, the benefits system. Sadly, Minister, a lot of those benefits remain unclaimed in Wales and we have a host of organisations, such as Citizens Advice, housing associations, various charities and local authorities providing help and support so that people are aware of their entitlement and claim it. But, sadly, that doesn't appear to be enough. I wonder, Minister, whether Welsh Government might take a fresh overview of the sources of information and advice available, and whether there are any gaps?
I well remember when local authorities all had welfare benefit advisors and, obviously, that isn't the case today after the years of austerity. So, I just wonder—
The Member needs to conclude now.
—if Welsh Government could take a fresh overview of these matters.
Thank you very much, John Griffiths. Well, income maximisation and benefit take-up is crucially important to this, and it is worth us looking at who is helping us with our campaign, our national benefits take-up campaign, which we delivered last year. We're running another campaign—we announced this as part of our response to the cost-of-living crisis—called 'Claim what's yours' campaign, launched this year. It's also very important that we link this to our support for the single advice fund. We know, with Citizens Advice, we've approved over £11 million grant funding to be available to those single advice fund givers. And we need to have stability for that, so we've ensured that they can reach out. But it is very important that we respond to this, because this is the way in which we can get money into people's pockets, not just through the £200 fuel support scheme, the £150 in terms of those on the council tax bands, but also the discretionary assistance fund. But they should be taking up UK Government welfare benefits and crucially important, I'd say, pensioner credit, which still has a low take-up level. So, thank you for those comments.
And lastly, question 9, Delyth Jewell.
9. What safeguards are in place to ensure international students are not discriminated against when applying for jobs in Wales? OQ57798
Wales welcomes international students and the Welsh Government is committed to creating a fairer society where people do not face discrimination on the grounds of their race. Equality and employment law provides protections for job applicants and we will continue to pursue zero tolerance of racism via our anti-racist Wales action plan.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer.
A recent report by Charanpreet Khaira for BBC Cymru Wales raised serious questions, though, about whether international students are being treated fairly by Welsh employers. Reporting included an interview with a Nigerian woman who qualified for a band 7 NHS job after a Master's in public health in Wales, but she'd been turned away from band 2 carer jobs, despite there being demand for staff in that sector. The BAME Mental Health Support charity said they'd helped more than 40 people—20 of them were qualified doctors—to make applications, but they'd all been rejected. I know the Welsh Government is aware of this because the economy Minister did respond to the report, but I'd grateful if you, Minister, could give an assurance that you'll work with your colleagues in Government to try to ascertain the scale of this problem and to find solutions that would benefit both international students and Welsh service providers.
Thank you. I can absolutely assure you, Delyth Jewell, that this is crucial to us delivering on our race equality action plan for an anti-racist Wales. Obviously, I'm aware of this, it's very concerning, but I would also draw your attention to the £65 million Taith programme, open for applications now, supporting students and staff from all education sectors in Wales to study and learn across the globe, and also recognising we do have a proud history of welcoming healthcare and social care professionals from all over the world. You'll see this in our plan in terms of actions and delivery as we move to publish the final race equality action plan for an anti-racist Wales.
I thank the Minister.
The next item is the questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution. Question 1 is from Rhys ab Owen.
1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of the proposed changes to the Human Rights Act 1998 on the Welsh devolution settlement? OQ57785
Thank you for the question. The Welsh Government issued a response to the UK Government's Human Rights Act reform consultation on 8 March, setting out our significant concerns and opposition to the proposal to replace the Human Rights Act 1998 with a bill of rights.
Diolch yn fawr, Gwnsler Cyffredinol. As you know, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European convention on human rights is at the very heart of devolution in Wales. Conformity with convention rights is safeguarded by the Government of Wales Act 2006 and was voted twice by referenda by the Welsh people. Given that the Westminster Government claims to respect referenda, it's surprising that they're willing to potentially pull away this power from the Welsh people to hold the Welsh Government and this Senedd to account.
If the Westminster Government implements their proposed changes, meaning that UK secondary legislation no longer needs to be compatible with convention rights and can no longer be challenged by way of judicial review, Cwnsler Cyffredinol, has the Welsh Government considered what impact that would have on the status of Welsh law? Diolch yn fawr.
Well, thank you for the points you make. This is, indeed, a serious constitutional point because, as you've mentioned, human rights are embedded in our constitutional status. You'll know, of course, that we have serious concerns with the nature of the consultation. Although it mentions devolution, it doesn't actually deal with the devolution issues that are there, and it raises a number of areas that cause us concern when there is talk about rights inflation, i.e. that we have too many rights, apparently, and the failure of it to seek to address the issues of socioeconomic rights.
But on the particular constitutional point of if the UK Government were to proceed ahead contrary to recommendations from its previous independent reviews, then we'll have to consider what the implications are for Welsh law. We'll have to consider what the options are in terms of how we actually preserve the status of human rights law and standards within our own legislation. That is something that I am considering at the moment, and will, if necessary, report back in due course.
2. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government regarding any assistance it can provide to the International Criminal Court investigation into suspected war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine? OQ57802
Thank you for the question. I welcome the investigation by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and I'm heartened that 40 states have now referred the matter to the court for consideration. The Welsh Government stands in solidarity with Ukraine and its people, and will continue to support and assist in any way that it can.
Thank you very much for that response, Minister. I know that Members on all sides of the Chamber have already expressed their solidarity with the people of Ukraine and will continue to reach out to people in Ukraine to express that support and solidarity throughout the coming weeks and months. And I know that Members also on all sides of this Chamber will reach out to you, Counsel General, in the way that you've spoken and the impact that that's had on you and your family.
We all want to see an end to this appalling war, and we all want to see those who are responsible for perpetrating criminal activities and war crimes held to account for that. The Welsh Government, I hope, will support the United Kingdom Government in doing so, and I hope, Minister, that you can assure us this afternoon that the Welsh Government will work alongside the UK Government to ensure that we create an international coalition of people across the world to ensure that Putin is not only defeated in Ukraine, but that when he is defeated, he and his Government are held to account for the crimes they are committing today.
Thank you for those comments. Of course, the issue of human rights, of acts of aggression, of war crimes and of, in fact, genocide are matters that actually transcend party political differences, particularly when we see them occurring on 24-hour news, live, in front of our own eyes, in a way that probably has never happened before. What I can say to Members is this: on 1 March 2022, a number of party states, including the UK, referred the matter to the International Criminal Court, and, as I've said, that's increased to 40 now.
On 2 March, the prosecutor announced that he had opened his investigation, and the scope of the investigation encompasses past and present allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, committed on any part of the territory of Ukraine by any person from 21 November 2013 onwards.
And then, separately, on 7 March 2022, there was a hearing at the International Court of Justice in respect of allegations of genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. This related to proceedings that were brought by Ukraine against the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation decided not to participate.
We will of course be undoubtedly receiving numbers of Ukrainian refugees in due course. Some of them may be witnesses to war crimes and acts of genocide and it may be that one of the things that we could do is to actually explore the extent to which it is possible for that evidence to be secured for part of the international criminal investigation.
I now call the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Diolch yn fawr, and can I associate myself with the solidarity that's been shown in the Chamber today in respect of the people of Ukraine?
Minister, can you provide us with an update on the discussions you've held with the UK Government and your officials in relation to adopting the provisions of the UK Government's Elections Bill?
Yes, I can. Discussions have been ongoing. They have been very positive and constructive. They haven't yet been concluded. There are two outstanding issues of competence that are still under discussion and the issue of those and whether a legislative consent memorandum is required is under consideration at the moment.
I'm grateful for the update and I'm grateful for the fact that you've said that those discussions have been constructive. I know that, obviously, one of the outstanding issues that the Welsh Government has concern about is the issue of vote ID. And we on the Conservative benches here would encourage you very much indeed to adopt voter identification for all elections here in Wales so that there is some consistency when people go to the ballot box. Do you accept that not having consistency could cause significant problems for voters in terms of making matters confusing for them, particularly if elections for things such as the UK Government general election or police and crime commissioner elections are held on the same day as elections to the Senedd?
Well, of course, that is an issue that has already occurred, as we had the Senedd elections at the same time as the police and crime commissioner elections, and of course there were in fact different franchises for each of those elections.
I think it's very clear that there is a level of divergence. That divergence, I think, is going to increase, and I think what is necessary is that there is an increased emphasis on the clarity of those elections and where those differences apply in respect of particular elections. We of course had put the case to the UK Government that their proposals in respect of voter ID were in fact not only likely to place hurdles in terms of people actually voting, but they were creating an unwarranted divergence. The UK Government has obviously chosen to proceed with those. We disagree with them for all the reasons that we have discussed in recent debates.
Well, as you know, our position is very clear, and that is the fact that 99 per cent of people from hard-to-reach groups have some form of photo identification that would enable them to vote in elections, and 98 per cent of the population as a whole. The remaining 2 per cent that don't can have free photographic voter ID cards. We don't see an issue with that at all. And of course, it was the Labour Government that introduced photographic voter identification in order to vote in Northern Ireland some years ago.
Do you accept that if the Welsh Government is continuing in this opposition to voter ID and that this does cause greater divergence, as you've already suggested is likely to be the case, that one of the consequences of that—and I know that you have urged this in the inter-ministerial group for elections—is that it's highly likely that you'd have to potentially hold elections on a different day than the police and crime commissioner elections, or general elections, which, hopefully, will never clash in the future, of course? What sort of cost implications might that have for the Welsh taxpayer if you were to choose to hold elections on different days, when, frankly, efficiencies in terms of costs might be an issue?
Well, I think the efficient management of elections is something that is always under consideration, and of course has been in the various inter-ministerial discussions. For example, the proposals that are being made by the UK Government, even in respect of just Westminster elections, will have some financial costs, and we've made the case to the UK Government that those costs, obviously, have to be covered. The response has been received, I believe, positively.
In respect of the voter ID issue itself, you know that our view and our difference on this is that we see voter ID as essentially two things: (1) it doesn't have an evidential base to justify it, but, secondly, it is more about voter suppression than it is about robustness of elections. And if that were not the case, there would be an evidential base for its introduction. That evidential base has never been produced, or in fact even solidly argued.
But I think the point you do make is this: that, in the management of elections, we obviously want to see reform in the future, and, of course, the introduction of an electoral reform Bill. We want to see digitisation of the electoral system, which will make it much easier to manage elections, much more cost-efficient to manage elections, and also much more accessible. But, in circumstances where there might be two elections taking place with different franchises, then I think the systems are alert, as they have already been, to the fact that there are those areas of divergence, and there will be different systems. But it has to be managed. It's unfortunate that it's there, but I think it's in the nature of devolution. We have a particular direction in terms of elections that is about accessibility and openness and maximisation of capacity to vote and votes to be counted. I believe the approach adopted by the UK Government is one that goes in a direction that is different.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhys ab Owen.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Cwnsler Cyffredinol, you're more than aware of the concern that I and many in this Chamber—from Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party—have of the impact of the legislative consent motions on the devolution settlement and their increased use in this Senedd. The letter today from the Deputy Minister for the arts shows the chaotic nature of the LCM process; it really doesn't work. The education Minister said in the Siambr that he was seeking an amendment to the Professional Qualifications Bill, to make sure that UK Ministers could not amend that important devolution Act, the Government of Wales Act 2006—a very sensible move, you might think. But, in contrast, the health Minister has said that she wouldn't seek a similar amendment. She described the power of UK Ministers to make amendments to that important Bill as a small constitutional risk. She was satisfied with a despatch-box promise by a UK Minister, something that doesn't even bind this Government, let alone any future Government. So, which is it, Cwnsler Cyffredinol? Which conflicting approach, that of the education Minister, or the health Minister, is now the principle of Welsh Government when it comes to legislative consent motions? Diolch yn fawr.
Well, of course, I don't see them as being a contradiction or a conflict in that sense, because each particular Bill has to be assessed in terms of the particular circumstances that are applicable to that. And, of course, LCMs are a constitutional requirement that we have to deal with as a result of UK Government legislation, where it changes or impacts in respect of devolution. You are certainly right in respect of the fact that it is not an appropriate vehicle in terms of ensuring that legislation has perhaps the degrees of scrutiny that you should have. And, of course, that particularly is exacerbated when UK Bills are produced late, have substantial amendments that are made to them very late in the day, with limited opportunity then for proper scrutiny. I think those are things that need to be considered constitutionally, and I'm hopeful that the inter-governmental review will provide a mechanism for at least reviewing how that actually operates.
Some of the points you raise go back to Sewel itself. You mentioned the Professional Qualifications Bill and the position there that has been taken, which is not to give consent. The point you raised with the health Minister, I think is of a different nature because it is about consequential amendments. And, of course, we could adopt the position where we would say, 'No, these minor consequential amendments that you have the power to make we would oppose', but if that's the case then you have to remember that, of course, we also make consequential amendments to UK Government legislation. So, were we to adopt that position, it would then impact on the way we conduct our own legislation where we need to make consequential amendments there as well.
Diolch yn fawr, Cwnsler Cyffredinol. I look forward to hearing your statement next week about taking forward the recommendations of the Commission on Justice in Wales and the Law Commission report on Welsh tribunals. More of the justice system in fact is devolved to Wales than most people think, especially on those benches opposite me. But one strong argument to devolve the rest would be to show that the Welsh Government are running what they already have well, and it's fair to say that hasn't been the case in the past, with the Welsh tribunals often largely forgotten and neglected by the Welsh Government, and by this place also. To implement the recommendations of both reports, which is within the gift of the Welsh Government, would have positive changes for the people of Wales. It's easy for us to point fingers at the Tories all the time, and it's fun isn't it, but, sometimes, we need to take responsibility ourselves.
Please take this next comment in the good spirit it's being said, but I often struggle with Welsh Government statements. I read it and I try to work out what is it actually trying to say, and more than that, what will it actually achieve. So, please can the Counsel General give us a guarantee that the statement next week will be clear, will provide key milestones and will have accountable leadership to it? Diolch yn fawr.
Well, firstly, the simple answer to that is 'yes'.
Diolch yn fawr.
But I think what I should say is that, certainly with my portfolio as Counsel General and Minister of the Constitution, and with the Minister for Social Justice, what we have recognised is, of course, the Thomas Commission recommended there should be a justice Minister; well, in actual fact, we've effectively created that by the close co-operation in many ways we get, which is more advantageous in the way we're working. But, of course, the issue of justice and the technical aspects of justice, and particularly those that are within our jurisdiction, go very much hand in hand with socioeconomic justice as well. And I think that partnership has been very, very effective.
And I think what I would also say is, of course, the work that is going on in really preparing a very detailed analysis of the Thomas commission recommendations, the work that is going on in partnership with UK Government at the moment, what it has achieved and how it could achieve more, the things that we think could actually be delivered better in terms of justice by the devolution of justice, and also beginning to set the framework for justice, I think is something that will be very substantial. And I do look forward to that debate, because I think we're at the stage where Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd's comments that the devolution of justice is not of question of if but when are beginning to come to fruition. And I see one of the important contributions to that as being the reform of the tribunals. And, as you say, they have come to us in a sort of ad hoc way, have been developed or created in that sort of environment as well. But we have the opportunity, I think, as a result of the recommendations of the Law Commission, to look at the creation of a new administrative justice system within Wales, with potentially its own appellate structure, and I think that would be a very significant step towards, I think, what is an objective that most of those working within the justice system would recognise as being a step forward.
3. What conversations has the Counsel General had with the UK Government to ensure Welsh residents do not face barriers to justice? OQ57789
Thank you for the question. Matters relating to access to justice for Welsh citizens are always an important part of my agenda in the regular, frequent meetings that I have with UK Government Ministers.
Diolch, Counsel General. And you'll know—. Ensuring people in Wales have full and proper access to justice, as Members will know, is a clear passion of both of ours. And you will have heard me raise many a time in this Chamber, Counsel General, the injustices of the Post Office Horizon scandal, and the tragedies of Hillsborough and Grenfell. I applaud you and your leadership in this role, and the Minister for Social Justice, for sticking up and standing up for the people of Wales when it comes to justice, and I'm grateful for your constant advice in this area, and your commitment to work with me to see how we can use our current powers within Wales to help retip the scales of justice towards ordinary people.
Counsel General, you'll be aware of the ongoing inquiry into the Post Office Horizon scandal, and, once that inquiry comes to a conclusion, will you commit to continuing to support the families who've been affected by that scandal in whatever they need, including their fight—their ongoing fight—to access to proper justice and also a meaningful level of compensation?
Well, can I thank you for that very important supplementary question? Because what you've highlighted, as you did with the Hillsborough issue, is what is one of the great injustices of the twenty-first century: the injustice of thousands of people being affected by what turned out to be a computer inadequacy with the Horizon computing system, which has resulted in large numbers of people having their lives absolutely destroyed or blighted, people who were imprisoned, their families broken up, their marriages broken up. There have been 72 appeals overturned so far; there are more to come. And often we forget that, in fact, there were something like 2,500 people who actually had allegations made against them and who repaid money to the Post Office that they never needed to repay, because they were not guilty of anything, but to avoid prosecution. So, the impact of this has been so enormous.
I'm very pleased that Sir Wyn Williams is the chair of the inquiry. It will obviously need to complete its work, but we have to ensure two things: one is that everything that can possibly be done to give those people affected justice has to be done; but, secondly, one of the things that quite often doesn't come out of inquiries is that we want to know how it happened, why it happened, how it can be avoided again in the future, and whether there are individuals within the Post Office structure who should be held accountable, because certainly some of the evidence in the inquiry so far indicates that when Post Office Ltd became aware, there was an attempt to actually brush it to one side. Now, that's not to prejudge the outcome of the inquiry and, no doubt, decisions will be made there, but it seems to me that there has to be accountability as well as compensation. I very much welcome the efforts that you have put in, and I will certainly, and I know Welsh Government will do all it can to support those Welsh citizens who've been affected in that way.
4. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Law Society on the proposal by the SRA to close the solicitors indemnity fund? OQ57784
Thank you for your question. We are discussing the future of the solicitors indemnity fund with the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Law Society. I met with the SRA board chair and chief executive in November. We are meeting again later this month, I believe on 26 April, to discuss their proposed next steps following their recent consultation.
Diolch yn fawr, Cwnsler. I know that you are more than aware of the nature of the profession in Wales, especially in rural and post-industrial areas. We do have ageing legal professionals and practitioners. In a place like Mid and West Wales, over 60 per cent are over 50 years of age practising criminal law, and a high percentage also of petitioners in these areas. Now, the solicitors indemnity fund provides real protection for consumers, for users, but also for the legal profession itself. Without a viable alternative being put into place, and there's no viable alternative being mentioned at the moment, the closure of the fund could have a huge impact on the legal profession in Wales and on the Welsh public. Could the Cwnsler Cyffredinol confirm to me that he and officials within the Welsh Government will just gently remind the Solicitors Regulation Authority that there is a legal profession outside London and the big cities? Diolch yn fawr.
I thank you for that supplementary question, and I think perhaps a little bit more than a gentle reminder is probably the case, because I think you're right—the potential impact of these changes—. These are changes where there's an indemnity fund that everyone contributes to for the post-six-year limitation period cover. So, smaller firms are very adversely affected, particularly those in the fields of things like conveyancing, wills and probate, where matters can emerge many, many years later. So, it disproportionately affects Wales, and we already struggle enough with the legal deserts that we have and the issues with regard to the sustainability of small firms within Wales. So, I've raised those concerns with the SRA and with the Law Society, who've been a strong advocate of retaining the indemnity fund. I will do so at the future meetings. I have already highlighted the fact that it is not just the legal profession that would be adversely affected, but it is also the consumers, those who depend upon legal services. And, of course, again, it erodes confidence in the legal profession. So, I thank you for those comments, and I will indeed pursue those issues.
5. What legal advice has the Counsel General given to the Welsh Government about whether it is the Welsh Government or the UK Government that has the power to issue work-from-home guidance in relation to COVID-19 in Wales? OQ57796
Thank you for that question. Current guidance to employers covering working from home has been issued by the Welsh Ministers under the Health Protection (Coronavirus Restrictions) (No.5) (Wales) Regulations 2020. The Welsh Government has broad powers under health legislation and the Government of Wales Act 2006 to issue guidance on public health matters.
I thank you for that answer, Counsel General. The reason I'm asking it is because, last month, the Conservative MP for Aberconwy asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Commons to clarify that the UK Government civil servants working in Wales should follow the rules set by the UK Government rather than the Welsh Government when it comes to the guidance on working from home. But, as you've just said, it's the Welsh Government that sets the guidance for workers in Wales. We've also had the Secretary of State for Wales saying recently he wished that Wales were not able to set our own rules because, and I quote:
'We would have got a greater degree of public understanding'.
Do you agree with me, Counsel General, that it is in fact Conservative MPs who are deliberately and irresponsibly sowing confusion about this, especially when a recent poll by YouGov found that it's abundantly clear that the Welsh public both understand and support the COVID approach taken in Wales?
I thank you for the supplementary question. I suppose, in terms of some of those Members of Parliament who've been making those comments, if the opinion polls are anything to go by, by the next election they won't be here any longer, so maybe that will cease to be an issue there. But the position is very clear: we determine, within our own legal responsibilities, what the appropriate measures are, and that applies in respect of the Welsh civil service and employees as well. The issue as to certain Ministers not being happy with that, well, those are points that they make. I think they're trite points. I think they're made either in ignorance of devolution or in terms of mischief. Welsh Government will always basically follow the advice that it receives medically, and it will seek to give advice and guidance that is proportionate and that protects public health and the health of our employees and our civil servants as well.
6. What legal advice has the Counsel General given the Welsh Government on its powers in relation to the expansion of Aberpergwm coal mine? OQ57782
Thank you for the question. Section 26A of the Coal Industry Act 1994 requires the Welsh Ministers to approve mining authorisations issued by the Coal Authority before coming into effect. Aberpergwm colliery lawfully acquired its authorisation before the powers were introduced in 2018. Welsh Ministers were not able to intervene in the licensing process.
Thank you for your response.
We all want to keep coal in the ground. The Global Energy Monitor research group estimates that this mine, one of Europe's largest sources of the carbon-heavy anthracite coal variety used to make steel, could emit an eye-watering 100 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in that time. I do understand that the Welsh Government's assessment is that, as the licence was granted under condition in 2016, this predated the powers granted to Welsh Ministers in the Wales Act 2017. Planning permission for the extension was not consolidated by Neath Port Talbot Council until September 2018, five months after the provisions in the Wales Act came into place. The Coal Authority, on 10 January this year, informed the Welsh Government that Welsh Ministers will not be making a determination in this case. And this is the critical bit: the Coal Authority said that, under the Wales Act 2017, if Welsh Ministers had directed them not to license the mine's expansion, they could not have issued a full licence to the operator. Therefore, could I ask you what advice you will now be giving Ministers about objecting to the application to expand Aberpergwm coal mine? Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Well, thank you for the supplementary question. The section 26A provision, introduced via the Wales Act 2017, does not give the Welsh Ministers full coal-licensing powers. The Coal Authority continues to be the licensing authority for the UK. Section 26A is a power to approve mining activities authorised under a licence granted by the Coal Authority. So, we do not have the powers to make a decision in this case, as the licence predates the section 26A power. And the mine operator sought only to give effect to an authorisation already granted by the Coal Authority in 2013. So, the decision to issue a notice discharging existing licence conditions was a matter for the Coal Authority to consider against the duties imposed on it by the Coal Industry Act 1994.
The fundamental issue is having a Coal Authority whose duty is to maintain a coal-mining industry in the UK. So, we've been calling on the UK Government to change this duty in the coal industry Act to reflect the climate emergency. So, though we were not able to intervene in this case, our policy is clear: we want to bring a managed end to the extraction and use of coal for thermal burning. We are committed to working with the fossil fuel extraction industry on the transition to business models that are sustainable for the long term and that support decarbonisation.
I thank the Counsel General.
Item 3 is next, and that's questions to the Senedd Commission. Question 1 is to be answered by Joyce Watson. Peredur Owen Griffiths.
1. What steps has the Commission taken to ensure that the Senedd is accessible to blind and partially sighted people? OQ57803
Thank you for that question. The Senedd Commission is committed to being an accessible organisation that supports an inclusive Senedd. Staff across the Commission undertake equality impact assessments to ensure that everyone has access to the Senedd and can fully participate in all activities. For example, our new website was user tested by disabled people, and consideration is given to access issues when undertaking work on the estate, and reasonable adjustments are made for people who are blind or partially sighted.
The Commission will shortly be undertaking a public consultation on our diversity and inclusion strategy for the sixth Senedd. We will be reaching out to a range of stakeholders and we will welcome feedback on how we can make the Senedd more accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Thank you for that response. Losing one's sight is an increasing problem in this country. Yesterday, RNIB Cymru staged an event—an introduction to sight loss—to encourage Members to consider how we would support and communicate with our blind and partially sighted constituents. RNIB Cymru says that 13 more people start to lose their vision every day in Wales. They also anticipate that the numbers will dramatically increase, with the number of people living with sight loss doubling by the year 2050. One of the other things that RNIB Cymru say is that the Senedd estate is particularly difficult for blind and partially sighted people to navigate. This is because of the abundance of clear glass, as well as slate floors and stairs. Bearing that in mind, would Commission representatives be willing to meet with RNIB Cymru, with the intention of committing to their 'visibility better' principles for the design of inclusive buildings? Thank you very much.
You can absolutely be sure that I will give my commitment to meet with RNIB Cymru and listen to the areas of concern and take them very much on board. The Senedd, and also the Senedd Members like you, really do want everyone, regardless of their ability or disability, to be able to access all the services in a way that they feel comfortable with. So, I would certainly be more than happy to do that, and if you want to be at that meeting as well, you're very welcome.
Question 2 is to be answered by Janet Finch-Saunders. Andrew R.T. Davies.
2. Will the Commission provide an update on biodiversity on the Senedd estate? OQ57786
Thank you. Now, despite limited green space on our estate, the Commission has made significant improvements in recent years to encourage biodiversity, and in our carbon strategy we do commit to doubling the green space on the Senedd estate. That estate is largely tarmacked, but we have made improvements where we can, with a small garden strip extended last year, including a second pond, beehives, blossoming trees, bird boxes and bug hotels. We also maintain the land alongside the Senedd to encourage wild flowers, even though it is not ours. The gate between those two areas allows for some movement of insects and larger wildlife around the estate.
I thank the Commissioner for that response. As someone who can remember coming down the bay here when it was being redeveloped in the late 1980s and it was a quagmire of black mud, basically, I'm pleased to see that there has been improvement, not just on the Senedd estate, but across the whole bay area. But there is much more we can do. I've raised with the Welsh Government about hedgehog highways, because hedgehogs are something I show a complete—I was going to say a big interest in, or so my office tells me I show a big interest in—[Laughter.] It is important that there's a measure of the wildlife that is in the bay area, and surveys have shown that there are a greater number of hedgehogs in the bay area now, looking for habitats in particular, and I understand that the Commission are also looking at hedgehog highways and the possibility of making those hedgehog highways across the Assembly estate. But have you thought about putting habitats in place, such as hedgehog houses, so they can hibernate in those houses and people can show greater interest in the wildlife that's in the bay area? I can't believe I've asked this question, to be honest with you. [Laughter.]
Well, I'm jolly glad you have asked that question. What I can tell you, as the Commissioner for sustainable development, is that I'm very proud of Nerys and Matthew and Ed, of course, our director, for the work that they're doing behind the scenes in terms of increasing our biodiversity and conservation. After I saw your question to the Minister, it dawned on me that, really, we should be looking at hedgehog highways, and it's a fact that movement of such creatures is possible, given the gate separating the estate from the wider bay area. Further measures could also be introduced to encourage these creatures; however, we have to acknowledge that a large part of the site is a car park, so it may not be the most suitable habitat for them to explore. But we are going to be looking at hedgehog highways and hedgehog houses, I can assure the Member on that, and thank you for the question. Diolch.
Can I also say 'thank you' for the question to the Member, because it is important that we raise these issues across the estate, but also for the people of Wales, for many, I know, who have a keen interest in animal welfare, including hedgehog welfare?
Question 3 is to be answered by Joyce Watson. Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I really enjoyed that question.
3. What mental health support does the Commission provide to its staff? OQ57794
I thank the Member for the question. The Senedd Commission continues to make mental health and well-being a priority. This has been well evidenced during the challenging time of the pandemic. The Commission has a long-established on-site occupational health professional and an employee assistance programme, which can provide counselling and a range of services that can be accessed 24/7. The Commission has also an established mental health network that offers peer support and guidance, weekly contact meetings and a number of trained mental health first aiders.
All services and support provided continue to be accessible both in person and online, including a bespoke mental well-being page to assist the transition to working from home and dealing with the day-to-day anxieties brought on by the pandemic, and they're also accessible to Members and staff alike.
Thank you for that comprehensive response. I know that many people—
Sorry, is it working?
I know that many people working for the Commission are working very hard to support people who need this support. Unfortunately, as you've said, the pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems for many people, and left some in crisis. The employee assistance programme has been a huge help for many, but the service is not always enough. Some call the service once, but don't follow up, while others don't call at all, because they're anxious about discussing difficult issues over the phone. I'd like to know whether the Commission could consider providing an internal counselling service to run alongside the EAP, so that staff who need specialist support for mental health issues, stress, fatigue, and even bullying, could seek specialist support immediately. Would this be something that the Commission could consider, please, not only for Members' support staff but for everyone working at our Senedd?
I hear clearly what you're saying, and I was there at the decision to set it up in this way. One of the reasons for it being set up externally rather than internally was because individuals were saying at that time that they would prefer an arm's-length counselling service, so that if they—. They felt more comfortable, is what we were being told at the time. But if evidence has changed and people feel that they're more comfortable having something internally, then of course we would look at it. But it's about the stigma. That was the reason that people preferred this being set up in the way that it has been set up, and also to recognise, in some cases, of course, that some of those allegations may be against colleagues and people working close to them. So, it might be a case of maybe mixing it a bit, but, of course, the occupational support that is on-site, I think, was designed to do that. But, as always, we're more than pleased to have conversations; I'm more than happy to have a conversation with you and others to see if we can improve it, because that's essentially what we want to do.
Question 4 is to be answered by Rhun ap Iorwerth. Jack Sargeant.
4. Will the Commission make a statement on how it encourages the public's participation in Senedd committees? OQ57792
Thank you very much for the question. Encouraging engagement with committees is a very important element of the Senedd's engagement work, to ensure, of course, that the public's view is reflected in our discussions. During the pandemic, we reached new audiences through a virtual engagement programme, encompassing online focus groups and other online events, and as we move back to the post-pandemic world, we are developing plans to ensure that our online engagement work complements our traditional face-to-face engagement work, and work is ongoing now to find new ways of ensuring a wider range and diversity of people and groups that we engage with to ensure that the lived experiences of people from all parts of Wales are at the heart of our work.
Diolch yn fawr, Commissioner, for that answer. I'm grateful for the work the Commission has done during the pandemic and what it continues to do. If I may, Deputy Presiding Officer, I'll declare an interest at this point as the Chair of the Senedd Petitions Committee, and as the Chair of the Petitions Committee, I want the people of Wales to see it as their committee; they shape our agendas with their petitions and their signatures, and I want everyone to know it and consider signing or submitting a petition to our Senedd.
But, to do that, they do need to understand the areas that the committee covers and what is a matter for elsewhere. I believe we can do this by promoting the success of previous petitions we've had in our Senedd, not just in this Senedd, but, of course, in previous Senedds as well. I have an idea that I think we could use to champion this, and that includes launching a petition of the year award, led by the committee and this Senedd. Will the Commission look at supporting me with this idea and see how we can work together to launch a petition of the year award in this Senedd?
Thank you very much for that idea. Certainly, we do need always to be trying to innovate in the way that we engage with people. The Petitions Committee, of course, is a committee that is driven by that direct engagement with the people of Wales. I know that Jack, in his role as Chair of the Petitions Committee, has been involved in one particularly successful campaign recently, and as a result of the work of the social media team with Rhian Mannings, following her petition seeking assistance for families who have lost children and young people suddenly and unexpectedly, I think that there have been over 20,000 Twitter impressions, over 2,300 Facebook responses, and that shows that a petition that captures people's imaginations, with efficient and effective engagement work around it, can genuinely influence the policy-making process. So, we have an idea here of how to give a further boost to the petitions process. The idea of an award is one that deserves further consideration and is a good idea. I will ensure that there will be a conversation between Jack and the engagement team to see how we can pursue such an idea.
Question 5 is to be answered by Ken Skates, and asked by Peter Fox.
5. What assessment has the Commission made of the impact of the economic sanctions on Russia on staff and Members' pension funds? OQ57807
Dirprwy Lywydd, can I first of all thank Peter Fox for this question? Obviously, the question of where funds are invested is of very great interest to Members at this time, who, rightly, would not wish to see funds invested in any Russian entities. Now, clearly, the Commission has no means to influence the allocation of the Members' pension scheme assets. That power rests entirely with the pension board, which is independent of the Commission, and the decision on where to invest is based on advice that's received from the board's investment advisers and is agreed by the pension board as a whole. So, whilst the Commission are aware of the issues, it is not for the Commission itself to make a financial assessment—it's for the pension board.
I understand that the pension board have issued a statement very recently to Members regarding this matter. It can be viewed on the Members' intranet page. Questions about the Members' scheme's investments should be addressed to the pension board. I know that Mike Hedges, as a Member-nominated trustee, is very happy to answer any questions that Members may have.
Now, the second fund, being the support staff pension scheme, is run by Aviva, and decisions on the investments of support staff pensions rests with their specialist investment advisers and the support staff themselves. So, the Commission, again, is not involved in deciding how the assets are invested for that scheme either. The Commission's pensions team have been engaging with Aviva though, who have confirmed that they have very little holdings in Russia, and the situation is under constant review. The team have worked with Aviva to provide a communication for support staff addressing concerns that they may well have and, again, this can be viewed on the intranet pages.
Now, with regard to the third fund, that being the Commission staff—. The civil service pension scheme, which is the third fund, that's an unfunded scheme and, therefore, it has no assets to invest. Benefits are paid through that scheme from tax revenues rather than from assets.
Thank you, Commissioner, for that response. I think that was very helpful for Members and others watching in. As we all know, there is a wide-ranging movement across the UK and the wider world to disinvest from Russia based businesses as well as stocks and shares. Of course, in normal times, it's usual practice to use things like pension schemes to invest in foreign stocks and shares, but Russia's illegal and unnecessary invasion of Ukraine has meant that it is important to ensure that public money is not inadvertently being used to support a regime that has shown that it has no respect for democracy or the rules-based international order.
Will the Commission confirm its commitment—and I think I know the answer—to working with the pension board and other stakeholders to ensure that any investments derived from staff and Members' pension schemes are disinvested from any Russia based businesses? And could you answer: how is the Commission working with stakeholders to ensure that the relevant pension policies support responsible investments?
Could I thank Peter Fox and assure him that we will undertake to work with the pension board to ensure that all the investments are ethical investments? Obviously, the Welsh Government itself, through the economic contract it has with businesses, is driving a values-led economy, and we as Commissioners are also keen to make sure that, where we invest, we invest in businesses—primarily in Wales when we can, but businesses elsewhere as well—that have sound ethical foundations to them. There is a particular section on the intranet, the statement from the board, which states that,
'In March 2022, in line with the investment manager's fair value pricing policy, the decision was taken by the investment manager to mark this holding'—
that being that tiny Russian element of holdings—
That indicates that the board are working very, very closely with Aviva's experts to ensure that no money can be invested in Russian entities. It would be absolutely wrong at this moment in time, as you say, to invest in any Russian businesses, and so Commissioners and the pension board are very alive to the need to make sure that all investments are carried out in an ethical way and invested in businesses that are ethical as well.
Thank you, all.
No topical questions have been accepted today.
We'll move on to item 5, 90-second statements. We only have one statement today, and I call on Siân Gwenllian.
Thank you very much. The art foundation course at Coleg Menai was established in 1981, but the fortieth anniversary celebrations are only taking place this year due to last year’s public health situation. This was the inspiration behind Owein Prendergast’s decision, as course leader, to give the exhibition the title '40+1'. The course was established in Bangor by the artist Peter Prendergast, Owein’s father, and his contemporaries. Special artworks have been created to celebrate the anniversary, and they are currently being exhibited at Storiel art gallery and Pontio. Owein curated artworks, one for each year being celebrated in the anniversary, and work by former students, lecturers and the course’s founders. The work is testament to the major contribution made by the course over the decades. Some of the most prominent names in the Welsh arts scene launched their fledgling careers here, but I won’t start naming them in case I forget someone and cause offence by omission. But everyone pays tribute to a creative, experimental, formative period that gave them the opportunity to blossom as individuals as well as artists. So, happy anniversary to Coleg Menai’s art course, and huge congratulations for reaching such an important milestone. Long may the course make such a profound contribution to our nation’s visual arts.
Item 6 is a debate on a Member's legislative proposal, marine planning in Wales. I call on Janet Finch-Saunders to move the motion.
Motion NDM7896 Janet Finch-Saunders
To propose that the Senedd:
1. Notes a proposal for a Bill on marine planning in Wales.
2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to:
a) make provisions for policies that would help guide the siting of developments away from the most ecologically sensitive areas, minimise the cumulative impacts on vulnerable habitats and species, and provide greater certainty to developers;
b) create a duty for the Welsh Government to facilitate the creation of a national marine development plan, and review it at least once in every Senedd;
c) establish strategic resource areas for marine energy;
d) publish a strategy for reversing seabirds decline;
e) require that offshore wind farms include habitat restoration of the seabed; strategy for sustainable seafood harvesting from within the area of the windfarm and, environmental enhancement measures.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. The historic absence of marine spatial planning and an isolated approach to managing our seas means that we now face unco-ordinated scrambles for space and increasing delays for industry. As we urgently need to move away from Russian hydrocarbons following Putin's illegal invasion, we must have the best legislation possible, which champions marine energy projects and greater energy security whilst keeping the nature and climate crisis at heart. This proposal would do just that.
So, why should this Parliament, the Welsh Parliament, legislate on marine planning? Well, the recent Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee report on the draft budget highlighted our finding that there is concern about barriers to renewable offshore energy generation in Wales, including a paucity in the marine environmental evidence base, and complexity that bring delays in the consenting and licensing process. There are widespread concerns about NRW's ability to effectively carry out its roles and responsibilities, including monitoring and assessing the condition of marine sites while supporting marine planning, and that whilst a review to streamline the consenting process is to be welcomed, there is still a severe lack of a robust evidence base to underpin development decisions, and there are consequently inherent risks in ramping up development. This is certainly what we do not want to be hearing at a time when the UK Government has rightly set an ambitious target to deliver 40 GW of offshore wind by 2030. There are approximately 4 GW of upcoming additional offshore wind developments in north Wales, and the Crown Estate is pursuing plans for floating wind in the Celtic sea. The Welsh Government has already failed to meet the deadline to achieve or even maintain good environmental status, GES, of marine waters. Marine biodiversity is declining. In fact, according to the second 'State of Natural Resources Report', only 46 per cent of the marine protected area network features are in favourable condition. The lack of true spatial planning to guide the sustainable use of our seas hinders GES and threatens the upscaling of offshore wind.
Whilst I acknowledge the commitment in the renewable energy deep dive, and I thank the Deputy Minister for doing this, to work with NRW and key stakeholders to identify marine strategic resource areas by 2023, this was to provide guidance to signpost appropriate and inappropriate areas for development. But that is only guidance. We now need to create a legal duty to create a national marine development plan, one that is relevant to Wales, and to keep it under regular review. As the RSPB have stated, the lack of robust statutory weighted development control and spatial policies to steer developments away from environmentally sensitive areas from the outset does create uncertainty for all parties, and inevitably leads to conflict at the application stage.
Baroness Brown of Cambridge endorsed spatial planning, stating:
'I think sea bed planning in order to make sure that we can enable these activities to coexist without...urbanising the sea bed, is hugely important.'
Many Members work with the Marine Conservation Society, and they have stated that they are wary of a piecemeal approach that, when coupled with a significant ramping up of development proposals, is a recipe for unforeseen, cumulative and in-combination impacts. Strategic resource areas need to sit firmly within a holistic marine spatial plan, as is highlighted in the report on the Welsh Government's own marine policies. Environmental stakeholders called for a cross-sector statutory spatial plan that addresses the cumulative impacts of marine development. So, let's ask ourselves: how can it be right that, whilst planning on land has 'Future Wales', 'Planning Policy Wales' and local development plans to guide development, at present, there is no similar system for what happens in our seas—and, I would just add, the great expanse of our seas? This is despite Welsh territorial seas covering some 32,000 sq km.
Janet, will you take an intervention?
Yes, of course.
I don't know which screen to look at. You're twice in front of me, Janet. Many thanks for bringing this debate; I think it's a very important one. One of the things I'm not clear on, and I wonder if you can help, or perhaps the Minister can afterwards, is whether we need new legislation or if the existing marine planning and marine and coastal legislation allows us to put a marine plan on a statutory footing without a new law. Have you got any clarity on that? If not, could you add to your contribution that request to the Minister: can we just get on with it and do it now, or do we need a new piece of law?
Thank you, Huw. It's fair to say I really appreciate working with you on the committee that we're on. As for whether it needs to be a new piece of law or whether we can adapt, currently a lot of the measures are just guidance, Huw. So, consequentially, what we're looking for is to ensure that that legislation covers some of the things I've said, and there are going to be a lot more yet. It has to be covered by legislation. I don't know whether the Deputy Minister or Minister can advise us today whether that needs to be new legislation, but we definitely need this marine spatial plan to be in law, rather than just guidance.
The consequence is that, for example, the Crown Estate leads the process by way of individual rounds of sea bed lease deployments. In fact, in carbon budget 2, you more or less admit that you are letting the Crown Estate lead, stating that you are collaborating to understand spatial opportunities for offshore wind, including floating wind developments. Rather than the recent focus that's been on devolving the Crown Estate, we should be prioritising the climate and nature crisis by developing a national marine development plan, and one that is covered by legislation.
We also need to create a Welsh sea bird recovery strategy. The UK Government and Scottish Government have both committed to address the threats and pressures on sea birds, yet, again, we're still waiting here, and this is despite the fact that there has been a severe decline in Wales's breeding kittiwakes, 35 per cent since 1986. In fact, Dr Catharine Horswill stated recently:
'We need to tighten up assessments to make sure that potential impacts to already struggling wildlife, such as the kittiwake, are better understood.'
Similarly, Lisa Morgan of the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales has stated that the location, scale and type of marine renewable energy schemes should be determined by proper environmental assessments. I honestly cannot see how anybody could argue with that. Even our fishermen and the aquaculture sector have highlighted an urgent need to take action in relation to windfarms.
Janet, you've used up your time. I'm going to give you extra time as there was an intervention, but you have got very little time left to close, if you don't close the first part now.
Okay. As our climate change committee recently heard, the marine plan is not fit for purpose in the context of the anticipated step change in development. I ask this Senedd to let that process of shaping our seas continue in a way that benefits the climate and our nature crisis by supporting this legislative proposal today. Thank you. Diolch.
Thank you, Janet, for tabling this debate. As a Member who represents a sizeable stretch of our coastline, I like to remind people that Welsh seas are more than a third larger than the Welsh land mass. So, marine planning is critical to many policies and priorities, from climate change to biodiversity, economic development to energy security. As a member of the Senedd committee that recently reported on the Welsh Government's marine policies, I have looked at how these competing and overlapping demands are being managed and balanced.
Ever since we reported, which was last month, the scales have significantly tipped. The war in Ukraine has put energy security and curbing fossil fuel imports at the top of the agenda. The Welsh Government was, of course, already committed to decreasing carbon emissions by 95 per cent by 2050. The sanctions against Russia highlight why that is a national security as well as a climate security issue. We will hear a lot more about electricity generation from offshore wind, wave and tidal currents coming in the weeks and months ahead.
Wales, of course, is best placed—literally, geographically—to generate these sustainable forms of energy. In west Wales, we have the Pembrokeshire demonstration zone and Wave Hub. Like the other energy-generation zones, it leases its right to use the sea bed from the Crown Estate, which Janet has just mentioned. And if devolving the estate can help us meet our aspiration to be a world leader in renewable energy, we must, of course, pursue that. But we must also ensure we have a robust plan to site and develop these technologies sensitively and appropriately to mitigate and minimise impacts on marine ecosystems and blue carbon stores. I agree with Janet on that.
I mention blue carbon because as well as the ecologically sensitive areas and vulnerable habitats and species that the motion lists, we must also consider blue carbon habitats and stores, sequestration and restoration. At least 113 million tonnes of carbon are stored in Welsh marine habitats, nearly 10 years' worth of Welsh carbon emissions. So, they're critical to achieving our climate change goals. NRW is due to publish a report documenting the carbon sequestration potential for the existing marine protected areas soon, and I look forward to reading that.
Welsh Labour has a manifesto commitment to restore coastal habitat restoration. We could extend that to include both blue carbon and ecologically significant habitats in the Welsh sea area. Going forward, the overarching aim should be to protect, restore and enhance blue carbon habitats, like seagrass meadow, at every opportunity.
I'd like to thank the Member for Aberconwy for giving me the opportunity to speak in her debate this afternoon. Fellow Members may be well aware of my affinity for the Atlantic grey seal. Indeed, the family home is even named after one. As its species champion here in the Senedd, I am incredibly grateful to represent, and be the voice of, such a magnificent creature, which calls the waters off our Welsh coast home.
For those that don't know, over half the world's populations of Atlantic grey seals can be found surfing the waves of the British isles, from the coast of Amroth and the isle of Skomer, to the Orkney islands in the far north of Scotland. It's no coincidence that these beautiful creatures also choose to reside in the most beautiful of places—of course, the coast of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire being their favourite location.
However, each of these locations also offers us valuable resources in our search for cleaner, greener renewable energy. In my own constituency is the fantastic Blue Gem Wind project, an offshore floating wind farm that is developing a new generation of energy in our Celtic sea. Having had the opportunity to visit Blue Gem and learned the benefits that it can bring in terms of both renewable energy and economic prosperity, it truly is a fantastic asset to not only Pembrokeshire but Wales as a whole.
As this motion rightly highlights, our drive for marine renewables must be considered against the backdrop of all of our existing marine commitments, including fisheries, aquaculture, shipping, navigational channels and, of course, biodiversity and marine animal protection. Indeed, this is what Blue Gem has done so successfully. They developed a plan-led approach to site selection, driven by technical and environmental considerations, with the overarching objective of identifying a viable site while minimising the impact on the environment and marine life.
Before making the decision to develop the Pembrokeshire site, a host of factors were considered, including bathymetry, the measurement of the depth of water; wind resource; proximity to nature; conservation designations; sea birds; marine mammals; fisheries; shipping; and proximity to ports—a whole host of options. This is an example of how it is to be done correctly, a process that any future marine development should replicate. But, as the Member for Aberconwy rightly pointed out, this is only guidance at present, and it does need to be added to the legislative statute here in Wales. The Member also mentioned the RSPB, which has said that we have one chance to ensure that we deliver marine renewables at a pace and quantum that allows us to meet our environmental targets, both climate and nature. Indeed, the two do go hand in hand.
So, I'm grateful to the Member for Aberconwy for bringing this forward. We need to get this right. There is a duty on the Welsh Government to facilitate the creation of a national marine development plan, protecting both Wales's climate and nature for future generations. Diolch.
Thank you for the motion in front of us today to the Member for Aberconwy. I see value in considering how we could draw together the different elements with regard to planning related to the marine environment, even though, like the Member for Ogmore, I'm not entirely sure that we need to take that further step for legislation. I do think that we need to consider that and see how we can press further on this, as it is important.
There are elements of the motion in front of us that I believe I would have put in a slightly different way. It talks about sea birds and wind farms and so on, but perhaps what we need to do is to set it out more widely than that. There is more to sea life than birds, and there is more to energy plans than wind farms offshore. But, despite that, there are important principles here. What we need, of course, is to strike the correct balance between use and exploiting our marine resources and having a sufficiently robust level of conservation too.
The Morlais scheme, off the coast of my constituency, is a very good example of what we're trying to achieve. It's an innovative scheme, to develop tidal energy technologies, with the aim of facilitating experimentation in that area through facilitating the consent process for individual developers, and it's very clear at the same time in terms of its conservation duties, and does that, of course, as a social enterprise, which is very important. But it has been a far longer process than it should have been. And if we can have legislation that assists in that regard, then do let us look at that. I know that the Government, the Minister and the Deputy Minister, are supportive of that scheme—and I'm grateful for that—but we need to make it clear that the processes of Natural Resources Wales, for example, work constructively and effectively with schemes such as Morlais, in order to achieve them in a way, yes, that caters for our natural environment.
May I refer to one clause in this motion—that we need to be very aware of the cumulative effect of schemes? That concerns me particularly with regard to solar developments on Anglesey—offshore and on land. And I have a direct question to the Minister: does the Minister agree that planning decisions with regard to the Welsh environment should look at the cumulative impact of the large numbers of solar applications on Môn, before we reach the point, inevitably, where there will be that negative cumulative impact? The principle, as I say, is the same, with regard to on-land or offshore developments.
To conclude, I'm surprised that the Member for Aberconwy continues to oppose the devolution of the Crown Estate. Wouldn't that encourage better use and more innovative use of the seas around us, and would encourage accountability? But to summarise, we need a vision, we need a plan, we need a clear action plan. And if a new legislative framework would help in that regard, then do let us bear that in mind.
Can I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for this debate as well? And I want to stand up, just as Samuel Kurtz did, for my species. I am the species champion for the pink sea fan—another name for it is the warty gorgonian, but I much prefer pink sea fan. They are a type of coral, and they don't have to be pink—they can be orange or they can be white. Most pink sea fans can grow to a height of around 25 cm, although some to 50 cm, and some to 1m, and it takes them a year to grow 1 cm. The pink sea fan is nationally scarce and globally vulnerable, and is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It's a priority species under the UK post-2010 biodiversity framework, and a feature of conservation importance, for which the marine conservation zones can be designated.
The condition, as we've heard, of our marine areas, and the health of our marine wildlife, is deteriorating, and it is essential that we do all we can to protect and enhance marine wildlife. That, of course, has to be balanced with our plans to expand our tidal energy, and the need for that is greater now than it's ever been. So, I would actually take issue with the Conservatives in relation to the lack of funding for the Swansea tidal lagoon, because that would have given us such an opportunity to expand our tidal energy. But I do support the intention here to ensure that the necessary funding, planning, training and regulation is in place so we can protect, not only the pink sea fan, but many other species of wildlife, habitats and those other species that are at risk. Thank you. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I call on the Deputy Minister for Climate Change, Lee Waters.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to respond to the debate this afternoon.
It's an important debate, and it's centred on the importance of planning for development, while protecting and restoring our marine environment. And the Government is very supportive of this sentiment, and, as noted by the committee, urgent action is needed to achieve net zero, while also cherishing our seas and marine biodiversity. Indeed, many of the areas with the greatest potential for exploitation of marine energy are also some of our most sensitive sites for marine life. So, we do have to strike a careful balance.
And that's why we've put in place the first Welsh marine plan, which we will be reviewing in the autumn, and it will be reviewed every three years, and the Government will report on its finding to the Senedd. So, the Welsh Government already has extensive and progressive marine planning powers granted through the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, as Huw Irranca-Davies mentioned, and we've used these powers to introduce our marine plan. So, we don't feel that any more powers are needed. Our focus is on the implementation of the plan as we develop marine planning.
But, of course, technology has developed since the plan was introduced in 2019, and we recognise we can and must do more. And our priority is to provide greater direction for development through the marine plan, and this includes improving our understanding of opportunities for development, and environmental sensitivities must and will be taken into account. In January we published our first locational guidance, and this guidance signposts towards areas with potential for development, and helps developers understand environmental sensitivities. It's supported by interactive mapping on the marine planning portal. The motion mentions developing strategic resource areas, or SRAs, and I'm pleased to tell Members that work is already under way on SRAs. Indeed, the first stakeholder event was held yesterday. These strategic resource areas will help us understand which areas have potential for sustainable development, including for renewable energy. Now, these areas will be safeguarded through our marine planning system. So, to be clear, all development, including strategic resource areas, will have to satisfy robust environmental regulations before consent is granted.
The urgency of addressing climate change is clear, Dirprwy Lywydd, and the deep dive into renewable energy that we conducted just before Christmas reaffirmed our commitment to developing sustainable renewable energy generation and blasting through any barriers that stood in its way. We are clear that marine energy, including offshore wind, forms a vital part of our future energy mix. The motion also calls for offshore wind farms to include environmental enhancements. Not only does the marine plan require developers to consider the sensitivity of marine ecosystems, it also encourages developers to contribute to the restoration and enhancement of the marine environment. One of the actions flowing from the deep dive was an end-to-end review of the marine licensing system, which we're just beginning work on. This review aims to identity opportunities for positive outcomes for both renewable energy and marine biodiversity. But we do recognise more needs to be done to protect our sea birds and improve their status, and we are working with partners, including Natural Resources Wales and the RSPB, to produce a Welsh sea bird conservation strategy. The strategy will assess the vulnerability of sea bird species and identify actions to support their conservation.
The motion also calls for offshore wind developers to provide a strategy for sustainable seafood harvesting, and the marine plan already includes a policy requiring developers to consider opportunities to share the same area or infrastructure with other marine activities. So, again, the pattern here is, Dirprwy Lywydd, the sentiment we agree with—we don't think it requires fresh legislation. We think this can be done through an updated plan, and we want to work with Members to make the plan as strong as possible. The central argument in Janet Finch-Saunders's opening remarks, which I'm sure she'll return to, is that our guidance should be put in statute, but whenever you put guidance in statute you make it rigid, because then you have to set new statute to update the guidance. And what we know about climate change is that the science is developing rapidly, and we wouldn't want to slow down our ability to act by putting into statute something that we covered in guidance, which is underpinned by law, just as we do in all sorts of other areas where we have a framework of legislation and we have guidance that we then update to reflect the science. So, we think this is a much more flexible and more appropriate approach, rather than bogging us down with legal barriers, which is something normally the Conservatives discourage us from doing.
The marine plan also recognises the importance of sustainable seafood harvesting. It sets clear policy, supporting the sustainable diversification of our fisheries and the development of aquaculture, and we're developing sector locational guidance to understand future opportunities for aquaculture. We're also progressing work to map strategic resource areas for this sector. So, in closing, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Welsh Government is supportive of many aspects of this motion, and we're currently progressing work to address many of the issues raised—valid issues. We think we have the powers that we need, but we do wish to work together across all parties to make sure, when we update the plan, we take every opportunity to make it as effective as we can. Diolch.
I call on Janet Finch-Saunders to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I thank the Members that have contributed and the Deputy Minister, despite his negativity on this, but there we go. I'd like to just reiterate Joyce Watson's comments about our Welsh seas are far much larger than our land mass, the risk and the benefits of a blue carbon sequestration, and the other merits really, and, in particular, I think, her comments about Ukraine, and the impact of the war on Ukraine and the need for us to really now look at locally produced renewable energy.
I congratulate Samuel Kurtz on being the champion for the Atlantic grey seal. I'm the champion for the harbour porpoise. But, as regards the Atlantic grey seals, we have them here in Pigeon Cove on the Great Orme, and we also have them in Penrhyn Bay. We—. Sorry. Jane Dodds mentioning the pink sea fan and about nationally scarce and vulnerable, and also the need to expand tidal energy, and I think that's a given—. Rhun makes an important contribution about the important principles and exploiting resources from our marine sea beds, whilst making sure that the conservation duties are adhered to. And I'm glad that you mentioned Morlais, Rhun, because I think that is a really innovative project.
The Deputy Minister mentioned about the Welsh marine plan, but, as we've seen, whilst we're sat here—well, I'm sat here—talking about it, these species are going in decline, we are losing biodiversity and marine conservation does need protecting. By putting this into legislation we have a chance, really, of protecting our seas and our species, whilst, at the same time, encouraging developers to come in and extract renewable energy sources from that. I firmly believe that this does need to be in law, because we've had years now of us going nowhere on this. So, I'll leave it at that for now, but thank you to everybody for listening and for everyone's contributions. Diolch.
The proposal is to note the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The next item is the Welsh Conservatives debate on the armed forces, and I call on Mark Isherwood to move the motion.
Motion NDM7955 Darren Millar
To propose that the Senedd:
1. Recognises the service and sacrifice of people from Wales in the UK armed forces.
2. Expresses gratitude to current and former armed forces personnel for their contribution to Welsh society.
3. Welcomes the appointment of Colonel James Phillips as the first Veterans’ Commissioner for Wales.
4. Calls on the Welsh Government to work with the Veterans’ Commissioner and the UK Government to ensure that the armed forces covenant is upheld in Wales.
5. Believes that the Welsh Government’s armed forces covenant annual reports should be considered by an appropriate Senedd committee.
One of the presents my wife gave me last Christmas was a book telling the real story of a family entwined in the second world war. This included the following lines: 'Like many returning service personnel, he struggled for years with disabilities and other repercussions that went unrecognised and untreated. Instead, they were encouraged to pick up the reins of family life, get a job, forget the past and look to the future. Even more debilitating than the constant physical pain were the nightmares, reliving the torment and terrors so vividly that he would shout and throw up his arms in an effort to defend himself and awake screaming and flailing in terror. But there was no recognition or treatment then for such mental scars. Post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD, became officially recognised in 1992, too late for many.'
Speaking personally, I grew up amongst that stoic generation. They were our schoolteachers and shopkeepers, local businesspeople and local service providers, family friends and family members. At least they had the unspoken support and understanding of people in their local communities, most of whom had also experienced war in some way. Of course, this was not the case for the generations that followed.
Our motion today therefore calls on this Welsh Parliament to recognise the service and sacrifice of people from Wales in the UK armed forces and to express gratitude to current and former armed forces personnel for their contribution to Welsh society. The armed forces covenant refers to the mutual obligations between the UK nations and our armed forces. I led a short debate here in January 2008, supporting the Royal British Legion's Honour the Covenant campaign, concluding that this must be fought until it is won, and welcomed the publication of the armed forces covenant in May 2011, introducing a statutory duty from 2012 to lay before UK Parliament an annual report that considers the effects of service on regulars and reservists, veterans, their families and the bereaved, and to also examine areas of potential disadvantage and the need for special provision where appropriate.
The Welsh Government and all local authorities in Wales signed the covenant and subscribed to work with partner organisations to uphold its principles. However, although all 22 local authorities have in place an armed forces community covenant, requiring them to have elected member armed forces champions, more is needed. Despite the stated commitment of local authorities and the Welsh NHS to deliver as many tailored services as they can to the armed forces, my casework, and no doubt that of other Members, provides evidence that this does not go far enough.
Speaking here in December 2017, I stated:
'The UK Government's 2017 response to the Defence Select Committee report, which followed the 2016 armed forces covenant annual report, commented on progress in Wales.'
The quote continues:
'In spite of this, however, there has not yet been an independent review of progress and delivery across Wales since the establishment of the covenant.'
Speaking here in November 2018, I again noted that there had not been an independent review of progress and delivery across the whole of Wales since the covenant was established. Hence, our motion today calls on this Welsh Parliament to state that the Welsh Government's armed forces covenant annual reports should be considered by an appropriate Senedd committee, a parliamentary committee, to ensure that ex-forces personnel and their families in Wales are being properly supported.
I first led a debate here calling on the Welsh Government to establish an armed forces commissioner eight years ago. Speaking here in the November 2017 Welsh Conservative debate on the Assembly cross-party group on the armed forces and cadets inquiry into the impact of the armed forces covenant in Wales, led by Darren Hill as the—Darren Millar as the cross-party group chair—. A genuine slip up. This is a serious debate, I apologise. I called for the Welsh Government to consider the report's 23 recommendations to improve support. As I stated, the inquiry found that:
'in order to uphold the covenant, the Welsh Government should consider the appointment of an armed forces commissioner for Wales to improve the accountability of public sector organisations for the delivery of the armed forces covenant'.
'A commissioner would support the specific needs of veterans, represent these to Welsh Government and properly scrutinise service delivery for veterans carried out by Welsh Government, NHS Wales and local authorities. As with the other recommendations in this report, this role has been supported and endorsed by the armed forces community and armed service heads.'
When I raised this again the following year, the Welsh Government told me that this would, quote,
'divert resources from practical services and support.'
Speaking here last November, I therefore welcomed the announcement in the UK autumn budget of the establishment of a veterans commissioner for Wales, who will work to improve the lives and opportunities of the Welsh veterans community, recognising their contribution to UK armed forces.
I was then delighted to welcome the UK Government appointment of Colonel James Phillips as the first Veterans' Commissioner for Wales on St David's Day this year. Colonel Phillips, who is married and lives in Pembrokeshire with four children and a boisterous Welsh springer spaniel, has just completed his own transition to civilian life after 33 years in the army. He served in Germany, Cyprus, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, and has commanded soldiers, sailors and air personnel and worked in NATO, Ministry of Defence, joint and army headquarters. On his appointment, he said:
'The ex-forces community forms an important part of Welsh society and there is a long tradition of service and sacrifice. I will utilise my experience and position to improve the lives of all veterans and their families.'
Joyce Watson took the Chair.
Colonel Phillips will report directly to the Secretary of State for Wales, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the UK Minister for Defence People and Veterans. As the Secretary of State for Wales said:
'The Armed Forces have a long and important tradition in Wales and we are exceptionally proud of our Welsh veterans. Our ex-servicemen and women and their families deserve recognition, support and respect throughout the duration of their service and beyond.'
The appointment of a Veterans' Commissioner for Wales will increase and co-ordinate the support available, and highlights the UK Government's commitment to the welfare of the men and women who serve our armed forces. I stated:
'This new role will help ensure that no veteran will be left without appropriate support, and we wish Colonel Phillips all the best in his new job and look forward to working with him',
adding it is vital that the Labour Welsh Government Ministers
'work hand-in-hand with the commissioner as many of the services our Armed Forces community rely on are devolved to Wales.'
I was therefore also pleased to read the statement by the Welsh Government Deputy Minister for Social Partnership, Hannah Blythyn—I'm pleased to see her in the Chamber—that,
'Wales provides a wide range of support for veterans...and we are committed to working with stakeholders to supporting all those who have served.'
She also said that:
'The Veterans’ Commissioner for Wales is a UK Government appointment. We look forward to working with Colonel James Phillips as part of our commitment to veterans across Wales.'
I therefore hope that the Welsh Government will support our motion today, which also asks this Welsh Parliament to welcome the appointment of Colonel James Phillips as the first Veterans' Commissioner for Wales, and to call on the Welsh Government to work with the veterans' commissioner and the UK Government to ensure that the armed forces covenant is upheld in Wales.
The Welsh Government's covenant annual report for 2020 described two main achievements: an established funding provision for Veterans' NHS Wales, which enables veterans with mental health issues to receive appropriate support, and funding the armed forces liaison officers until 2023 to embed covenant guidelines in local authorities across Wales.
Although the armed forces expert group welcomed the report, it submitted eight key priorities for the Welsh Government to address in this Senedd term, including developing a national plan to implement changes from the Armed Forces Act 2011, committing to permanently fund the supporting service children in education Wales fund, and extending housing priority to cover five years post leaving military service. The veterans' commissioner can play a key role in areas such as these.
It is almost 17 years since I first raised the need for traumatised ex-forces personnel to access mental health care and receive priority treatment. The Welsh Government did eventually launch Veterans' NHS Wales five years later, providing veterans living in Wales with non-residential assessment and psychological treatment for mental health problems, including PTSD. As Veterans' NHS Wales told me last November, they were grateful for their funding increase this financial year to keep the staff employed that Help for Heroes funded for three years. They added, however, that there were several other funding requests in their business case that Welsh Government failed to fund, including NHS-employed peer mentors and increased psychiatrist sessions—currently only one day per month. The veterans' commissioner can therefore also play a role on key issues such as these. Diolch yn fawr.
I call on Alun Davies.
I'm grateful to you, acting Presiding Officer; I'm grateful to Mark Isherwood as well for the way in which he has opened this debate. There is much of his contribution where I would agree with him. I think we all will share the same sense of service to this country and to our people. So, I think we will all recognise the sacrifices of the generation that he himself described in his opening remarks. And I think we all share that responsibility, then, to sometimes put aside some political differences in order to deliver the sorts of services that veterans need and require, and also to support existing personnel and their families.
I actually think that the Welsh Government has moved in a considerable direction over the years in order to deliver that, and I have to say, I think the Welsh Government does have, at the moment, in place significant support structures that are delivering for veterans and their families as well as serving personnel. I think there are things that the Government can do to improve its delivery and its performance, but I also think that we should recognise where the Government has got things right, and sometimes in our remarks, we don't always do that. I hope that, this afternoon, we will again be able to reach that same point of agreement across the Chamber.
Can I say I listened, smiling, listening to Mark quoting his own speeches and actually some of mine, back from the years? Because I was the Minister, of course, who rejected the proposal from Darren Millar and the cross-party group on establishing a commission, and I did it for very good reasons, and I'll outline some of those perhaps this afternoon.
The focus for me and the focus for everybody within the armed forces community in its widest sense has always been on the delivery of services and the delivery of services to people in need. Darren Millar and I, as chair and vice-chair of the cross-party group, work together to ensure that the Welsh Government continue supporting the armed forces liaison officers located in local government and accountable within local communities to ensure that services were delivered. And I was glad to see the Welsh Government, last year, delivering continued funding for that to the WLGA, so that those liaison officers can continue to work with local services, local veterans and the local armed forces community to ensure that the services are delivered in the way that they should be, and I very much welcome that.
I will welcome the appointment of the commissioner, but I don't think this is the right role; I'll be absolutely clear with Members on that. Some Members will be familiar with my contributions on other matters. I'm not convinced that the model of appointed commissioners is particularly good for democracy. I think that this place and the committees of this place have done more to hold Ministers and others to account in terms of children's services and services for older people than either of those two commissioners over the years, if I'm quite clear with Members. There is nothing to prevent a committee of this place undertaking a review and an investigation into the delivery of services to the armed forces community or for the armed forces community. So, the democracy is there and in place, and can work, and, I believe, does work. I don't believe that appointing a commissioner accountable to a Government is the way that you increase accountability. Government should be accountable to us and not the other way round. You don't create accountability by appointing somebody to hold you to account. That's not how democracy or accountability work and certainly it's not what I would ever support. I believe that accountability should happen here. It should happen here in this place, with those of us who are elected holding Ministers and others to account for the delivery of services. That's the democratic model. It's one I support and agree with.
And I have to say that, as we move forward with these matters, I think we do continue to have a very profoundly important agenda ahead of us and I pay tribute to the work of Darren Millar on these matters; he's been a little terrier, working away, leading the cross-party group, and he's ensured that these matters are constantly on the agenda of this place and of Ministers. He certainly kept chasing me when I was in Government and I appreciated and valued the work that he did.
So, I believe that we need to continue to debate these subjects. I would be interested, Minister, in your response, if you could outline how you will continue to report to us on those issues that you believe are the priorities for the delivery of services, and I hope that we will be able to invite you, Minister, again to the cross-party group where we continue to have those conversations. And I hope too that a committee of the Senedd will begin, as we go through the work of this Senedd, to ensure that Ministers here, and others, are held to account for the delivery of services that are delivered to veterans and the whole of the armed forces community in Wales.
I'm delighted to be able to participate in this debate this afternoon. Wales has a long history of providing personnel to the UK armed forces. In many Welsh families, there will be some link with the armed forces, either through relatives or friends, particularly in the Valleys in my region of South Wales East.
That is because Wales provides a disproportionately high number of personnel to the armed forces. Many leave an operational service to return to Wales every year in a bid to make the transition to civilian life. A combination of discipline, good skills and excellent work ethic mean that they are well placed to contribute to the economy. Unfortunately, many will struggle as a result of PTSD and other health issues picked up during their service in the military. Veterans may have health needs, difficulties in accessing housing, and a small number may end in the criminal justice system.
Many veterans will have seen active service over the past couple of decades due to the UK becoming more involved in longer term conflicts and wars of attrition. This has meant rest periods between active service have become shorter, and there has been an increase in stress and pressure on service personnel due to the nature of the tasks performed in those conflicts. A study of 10,000 serving armed forces personnel—23 per cent of whom were reservists—found that 4 per cent reported probable post-traumatic stress disorder, 19.7 per cent reported other common mental disorders, and 13 per cent reported alcohol misuse. Having asked service personnel to put themselves in the line of fire and, effectively, put their lives on the line, we owe it to them to make sure that they have what they need in order to return to normality when they leave the forces.
In the past, veterans were often neglected. This was something that was highlighted by the Westminster cross-party group on veterans, established by the then Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd. They published a series of recommendations more than 10 years ago, and some of those are now in force. So, while things have improved, there is still work to be done. I look forward to seeing the positive impact that Colonel James Phillips will make as the first Veterans' Commissioner for Wales. We owe it to the men and women leaving the armed forces to support them when they come back to their communities. We owe the communities they come back to the support needed to make the most of the valuable skills armed forces personnel possess. And we owe the world a duty to pursue the path of peace at every opportunity. Diolch.
Our country has a proud military history that forms so much of our modern-day cultures and traditions. Our armed forces are the best in the world and have been involved in some of the most infamous conflicts and peace missions across the globe to protect Britain's interests at both home and abroad. I am proud of our nation's history and the role our armed forces play. I have had family and friends who served, fought and died for our country, and I'll forever be thankful for their service and everyone else who has the honour and the bravery to serve our great country.
My constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire is home to the British army in Wales, and I'm extremely proud to represent them here in the Senedd. My constituency and my residents have an honourable and proud military tradition. Our Brecon barracks was first built in 1805, and the under the Cardwell reforms, the barracks expanded to become the home of two battalions. The troops from this barracks will forever live in our nation's memory through their bravery at Rorke's Drift during the Anglo-Zulu war.
My constituency still plays a vital role as the home of the world's finest infantry battle school at Dering Lines army camp and the army camp in Sennybridge, training troops from across the globe to go into conflict zones to protect innocent people. I know that Members from across this Chamber here today recently visited the army camps to see the training that our servicemen and women undertake. It was also great to note that the Ministry of Defence has recently announced that the barracks will continue to play a vital role within our military infrastructure and will be used by the British army for decades to come.
Servicemen and women serve their country with distinction, and they experience some things that we in this Chamber just simply could not comprehend. This leaves many of them suffering from the negative effects of war. There are about 250,000 veterans in Wales, and it is estimated that 4 per cent of the veterans will suffer from some kind of mental health issue, often as a result of experiencing combat zones.
I am very thankful and pleased that both the UK and Welsh Governments have worked together and have announced a new Veterans' Commissioner for Wales, Colonel James Phillips, who is based in Pembrokeshire. I would like to pay tribute and thank the Deputy Minister for her openness in working with me to help deliver this vital post.
With that in mind, I do believe that it is now time for the UK Government to seriously look at increasing the number of servicemen and women in our armed forces. Our troop numbers are vital for global peace and helping to maintain democracy across the globe. Our armed forces are diversifying with new methods of military technology due to the changing nature of warfare, and I personally believe that the UK Government should increase spending on and investment in our military personnel and infrastructure. Global Britain has a vital role to play, and I, for one, believe that our military has a bright future ahead. We should all in this Chamber be eternally grateful for the security and peace that our military provide to our families and to our great country.
I thank the Welsh Conservatives for tabling today's motion. Each day is a learning day, because I found out that Alun Davies was in Government, and I associate with the former Minister's comments earlier in his contribution with regard to scrutiny by this Senedd and the committee work it should be doing. Every day might be a learning day, but it's also different, because I find myself surprised at agreeing, mostly, with Mark Isherwood this afternoon in his opening remarks and what he said.
But this is a subject area that is at the forefront of all of our minds at the moment, as those brave women and men of the armed forces keep us safe. Acting Presiding Officer, I would like to take this opportunity to specifically highlight the role that our armed forces have played throughout the coronavirus pandemic. To say that they've gone above and beyond does not fully capture the difference they have made, and we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
As I said, I agree with the former Minister's comments on the role that the Senedd can play and the committee work that it needs to do, and I would wish to see that happening. But I do welcome the role of the veterans' commissioner and I would also be grateful for the opportunity to meet with Colonel James Phillips to talk about veterans in my own constituency of Alyn and Deeside and to hear his views on how this Senedd can best support them.
Acting Presiding Officer, I'm proud to be an honorary member of the Shotton and Deeside branch of the Royal Welch Fusiliers Comrades Association. Last weekend, I was pleased to speak with representatives from Labour Friends of the Forces during the Welsh Labour conference in Llandudno—an excellent conference, if I might add. And I would like to pay tribute to the Labour Friends of the Forces and the work they do to enrich that link between Labour members and our armed forces, and I will certainly be joining them as a friend and member.
Acting Presiding Officer, in closing, I just wish to conclude that, every year, on Remembrance Day, we quite rightly stop and we quite rightly pause to remember those who have sacrificed so much to preserve the freedoms we cherish. But throughout the year, as Members of this Senedd, of this Welsh Parliament, we should have those who serve and those who have served in our minds as we go about our daily responsibilities. That is a commitment I will make today. I will continue to do all I can to champion our veterans and our armed forces, like Darren Millar, like Alun Davies, like James Evans, and like everyone who has spoken in this debate. I ask colleagues from across the Chamber, each and every single one of you, to join me and make that commitment today. Diolch yn fawr.
It's a great honour to take part in this debate this afternoon and to give my thanks to our servicemen and women, past, present and future, for their incredible sacrifices that allow me and all of us to stand here today. Because, make no mistake, without our armed forces, there would be no democracy. We would not be debating our support for our armed forces; we'd be under the yoke of some dictator or another. You only have to turn to the news to see how fragile our democracy is. The hell Putin is unleashing on the poor people of Ukraine could possibly be our future, if not for the service of the brave men and women in our armed forces, men and women who are prepared to put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms. As Winston Churchill once said,
'Never was so much owed by so many to so few.'
That is as true today as it was back in 1940. But, sadly, we tend to forget that debt. We go on with our daily lives, ignoring the plight of our service personnel and our veterans, allowing our defence budgets to be cut to the bone, supplying our troops with inadequate equipment, because of the false belief that the world is at peace and armed forces are an anachronism of a bygone era. We ignored Putin's expansionism, stood idle as troops levelled Grozny, invaded Georgia, annexed parts of Ukraine in 2014, shot down a passenger jet, and continued killing civilians in Donbas. And now, Putin is hell-bent on restoring the USSR.
Today his sights are on Kyiv, but what about tomorrow? Is Chisinau in Moldova next? What about Tallinn? We don't know, which is why brave Welsh men and women are on the Estonian border, forming a red line against Putin's expansionism, hoping, like the rest of us, for a peaceful resolution, but prepared to put their lives on the line to protect our freedoms. We must acknowledge their service and ensure that our debt is repaid with interest. Far too often we have failed our veterans, which is why I believe the appointment of a veterans' commissioner marks a turning point. I hope the appointment of Colonel James Phillips will put a stop to the disregard of the armed forces covenant, put a stop to our veterans becoming homeless, ending up in prison or on psychiatric wards. We rely upon our service personnel in times of conflict and strife. They should be able to rely upon us when they have put down their weapons for the last time. We have to provide priority housing, education and welfare, and make their transition into civilian life as seamless and as painless as possible. We owe them this at the very least.
I hope Members will support our motion and send a clear message that this democratic institution stands firmly behind our defenders of democracy. Diolch.
Thank you for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I have to confess that I find debates on veterans and the armed forces difficult, not because I am a pacifist, but because of my own experiences with members of my family who served and who suffered horrors that I cannot comprehend whilst serving, but then, having served, those members of my family being neglected by the state entirely. And I'm afraid that the same pattern is being seen time and time again. It appears that the rates of suicide amongst veterans are increasing. Alcohol abuse is rife, and the lack of mental health support is a disgrace.
I would like to focus on one element in particular, namely homelessness amongst veterans. I visited a young family in my constituency this week. There were lively and adorable young children in the household, with one parent working in the health sector and the other parent a veteran who had served in Afghanistan and is now suffering from PTSD. This wonderful family was homeless and was having to live with the grandmother in an overcrowded home. Unfortunately, this is far too common a story. It's shameful that a state expects its young people to go out to face untold horrors, but then neglects them once they’ve left the armed forces. Veterans face huge challenges as they come to terms with their experiences, and the very least that could be expected is that they should have a roof over their heads when they return to what people call 'civvy street'. I look forward to seeing the new commissioner, therefore, making this issue a priority. Thank you very much.